The debate over 'The Help' is really getting ugly.
Before the film's release a week ago, initial reviews generally praised the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel for transforming a seldom-addressed facet of African-American life in the Jim Crow South -- the often humiliating experiences of black maids working for white families -- into well-crafted, even uplifting Hollywood entertainment. Then came a backlash of criticism of the film (and, implicitly, of the reviewers who praised it), arguing that the movie was, in fact, a racial whitewash, a perpetuation of old Mammy stereotypes and a trivialization of the actual struggles of black Civil Rights activists that occurred at the time, all filtered through the consciousness of a white heroine (and white filmmakers) and meant to relieve white audiences of their guilt over the racial injustices of the past while letting them off the hook for the persistence of milder forms of racism today.
That's some serious backlash, but now comes the counterbacklash, arguments from essayists that 'The Help' is a lot subtler and more nuanced in its portrayal of race relations in 1963 Mississippi, and in its portrayal of the conflicted feelings of the maids toward their employers and their children, than the movie's detractors give it credit for; that the detractors are conditioned to see racism in any attempt by white writers and filmmakers to address the lives of black foik, especially in that strife-torn era; and that this close-minded, knee-jerk reaction to the film is, in fact, racist.
There's a lot of baggage to unpack, then, in both the backlash and the counterbacklash. But what no one seems to be addressing is why the argument over 'The Help' has become so bitter and why the stakes seem so high. Now, I come neither to bury 'The Help' nor to praise it, but I think I know why everyone is so worked up, and the reason is something both sides of the debate can probably agree upon.
One of the difficult issues here is the centrality of Skeeter, the white writer portrayed by Emma Stone, who encourages the maids to tell her their stories, which she profits from by publishing them in a book. (Note the parallels with Stockett herself, not to mention screenwriter/director Tate Taylor and producer Brunson Green, all of them white Mississippians too young to remember the Civil Rights era firsthand, though not too young to have had black housemaids during their own childhoods.) To detractors of 'The Help,' Skeeter's presence reinforces the white-savior narrative, a common way for novels and movies to provide an entry point for stories of the plights of people of color. (So common, in fact, that it sparked criticism of 'Avatar,' where the people of color rescued by a white interloper happened to be blue.) The white-savior narrative is patronizing not just to the black characters (implying that they lack the wherewithal to save themselves) but also to white viewers (since it's assumed that they won't want to watch a story about black struggle unless there's a white face at the forefront to identify with).
Another controversial question is whether the movie is exploitative or respectful toward the black women it depicts. The Association of Black Women Historians argued the former in a statement, calling the movie's maids a perpetuation of the Mammy stereotype, women who were "asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites." I'm not sure this is fair, since the plot hinges on an outpouring of discontent and disloyalty from the maids, particularly Viola Davis' Aibileen and Octavia Spencer's Minny, the two most outspoken of the maids. Their acts of subversion may be small and done only behind their employers' backs, but there's clearly a difference between these quietly seething women and Hattie McDaniel's Mammy in 'Gone With the Wind' (the most notorious example of the stereotype), who does nothing to imply dissatisfaction with or dissent against the system that keeps her subservient. (It's not a difference in their personal dignity -- McDaniel gave Mammy so much of that that she became the first African-American to win an Oscar -- but in their willingness to assert that dignity, in the face of real danger.)
Still, it's the small nature of those acts of rebellion that has prompted another criticism, that 'The Help' trivializes the actual struggles in the Civil Rights movement going on in Jackson, Miss. (and elsewhere) in 1963. The movie does acknowledge the assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson that summer, but as Tulane professor Melissa Harris-Perry noted while discussing the movie last week on her Twitter feed and on MSNBC, it gives the Evers slaying as much screen time as Skeeter's date. To Harris-Perry, 'The Help' seemed to trivialize not only the Civil Rights struggles going on outside the frame, but also the hazards faced by the maids themselves, including threats of violence.
Indeed, some black viewers have embraced the film. One is Oprah Winfrey, who liked the novel as well. Another is linguist John McWhorter, who, in the New Republic, goes even further than Gleiberman, arguing that the movie's black critics are predisposed to see racism everywhere, that they're wedded to narratives that play up black suffering and victimization rather than black triumph (or black just-getting-through-the-day-like-everyone-else), and that "black pundits' reflexively hostile take on 'The Help' is a more articulate testament to the depredations of racism than anything in the movie itself."
I think Gleiberman and McWhorter's criticism of the critics as racist is as over-the-top as the black scholars' view of the movie as a deliberate racial whitewash. But I can see where both sides are coming from. The historians complain that the movie isn't perfectly true to history; the film critic and the language expert reply that an unvarnished view of history would fail as a piece of dramatic art. The historians grouse about the use of a white-savior narrative; Gleiberman and McWhorter agree that white-savior narratives are bad but argue that this one doesn't fit the mold.
That tiny seed of agreement, I think, leads to what the larger issue is here. Which is: there wouldn't be so much contention over this film if it weren't the only thing on the playing field addressing this particular topic. But mainstream movies rarely do address the Civil Rights era, and when they do, it's almost always through a white-savior narrative. The most egregious example is 'Mississippi Burning,' but there's also 'Ghosts of Mississippi,' or even movies as innocuous as 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or 'Intruder in the Dust.' There was also a forgotten movie about 20 years ago called 'The Long Walk Home,' very similar to 'The Help,' which tells the story of the Montgomery bus boycott not through Rosa Parks (who's not even a character in the film) but through a fictional white housewife ('The Help' co-star Sissy Spacek) who comes to sympathize with the hardships of her maid (Whoopi Goldberg) as she walks back and forth across the city to tend her employer's family and her own. So the historians come by their distrust of Civil Rights movies naturally; it's no wonder they didn't expect 'The Help' to be any better. Similarly, the pro-'Help' critics are aware of Hollywood's shameful history on this score, and it's no wonder they'd yearn for a movie that breaks the pattern. It seems like both the pessimists and the optimists saw in 'The Help' the movie they wanted to see.
It's really not fair for 'The Help' to have to shoulder the burden of so many hopes and dreams all by itself. But the fact that 'The Help' is out there all alone is part of a larger problem in Hollywood, which shies away not just from movies that portray the struggle against racism fairly, but also from movies that portray African-American lives in all their richness and diversity. (To be sure, Hollywood doesn't play up the diversity of American experience for people of any race; when's the last time you saw a mainstream movie about white people who were poor or rural?) Everyone on both sides of 'The Help' debate agrees on the Oscar-worthy quality of Viola Davis' performance, ignoring the fact that she's likely to be one of the few black acting nominees this year. Last year there weren't any black nominees, not because there's any dearth of talented black stars, but because they weren't cast in the juicy dramatic roles that win Oscars. There are similarly few such roles this year -- except in 'The Help.'
There would be a certain irony if Davis, a previous Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress for 'Doubt,' who's been so good in so many supporting roles, finally got a lead actor nomination for playing a maid like Hattie McDaniel did 72 years ago. "What kills me is that in 2011 Viola Davis is reduced to playing a maid," Harris-Perry said. I'm sure Davis and Spencer felt the same way, but if there were more dramas with roles for the likes of these two stars, their 'Help' roles would just be a blip on the résumé, part of a panoply of characters representing the diversity of experience, just as 'The Help' would be just one of many movies revealing all facets of life during an important period in recent history. (Really, it's a wonder that 'The Help' got made at all. I'm sure Davis and Spencer knew they'd get flak for playing maids; that Stockett, Taylor and Green knew they'd get flak for being white people telling a story about black lives; and that DreamWorks knew it could have a hard time attracting ticket-buyers to a touchy story about race with a predominantly female cast.)
What's smart about 'The Help' is that it knows it's just telling one small part of the story of race relations in America. Like Skeeter, the filmmakers seem to know that this one small slice-of-life account isn't going to make all the difference in the world or end racism as we know it. It's just getting the ball rolling as a conversation-starter, not the last word. As long as we don't expect it to be the last word, as long as other movies take up the thread and keep us talking about a subject that's clearly not safely behind us but which remains a sore point, then 'The Help' will have done its job.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.