Is ‘The Help’ Offensive?

Posted on August 26, 2011 at 8:00 am

The Help is a hit.  The book club favorite by first-time novelist Kathryn Stockett is now a box office success, with strong reviews and robust ticket sales.  Like the book, though, it is controversial.  Is it well-intentioned but insensitive for white people to write in the voices of black people?  Does it make whites, rather than blacks, the heroes of the civil rights struggle?

There are some worthwhile discussions of the film online already, well worth reading whether you liked the film or not.   Its greatest contribution will probably be opening up the space for conversations about how to tell these stories in a manner that is both true and respectful of the past and the present.  One element of the film I think has not been given enough credit is the way the most explicit expression of racism in the film, the requirement that private homes build separate bathrooms for “the help,” is a manifestation of the virulently disordered thinking from combining the extreme intimacy of the domestic employee relationship with the extreme racism that requires psychic distance.  The white employers hold onto their bigoted view of the world to feel less vulnerable to the domestics who were so deeply involved with their families and so aware of their secrets.


Teresa Wiltz’s review in “The Root” is an exceptionally thoughtful parsing of the film’s merits and its shortcomings.

In many ways, the movie version of The Help, adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, is better than the 2009 novel. The film does much to humanize unsympathetic characters; a close-up of welling eyes, a frown or a backward glance provide visual cues that Stockett’s ham-fisted prose cannot. On the page, Stockett’s clumsy attempt at black dialect grates; on the screen, in the mouths of talented actors, it feels natural, unforced. Then again, the supremely gifted Viola Davis (Aibileen) and Octavia Spencer (Minny) can make any screenplay sing.

Wiltz says the film “skillfully evokes the curious and complicated intimacy between African-American domestics and their “families” but it omits any role for black men.  Her criticism of the use of humor is telling: “Often, The Help‘s solution to handling difficult subject matter is to leaven it with humor, the better to make it palatable to a mainstream audience. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying, but sometimes laughter trivializes the fact that, yes, you should be crying.”

I liked the way The Root also included a discussion by five young black professional women who attended the film.  One said, “in a theater full of mostly older black women, who seemed to love the film, I was forced to not be so dismissive. Maybe we need to consider that that story line really resonates with a certain generation.”  Another found that she identified most with the young white protagonist in the film, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone). “Her story line as a young, educated, single woman trying to navigate society’s expectations resonated the most…That’s great news about how far we’ve come, but it also made me think seriously about what we’re doing (if anything) to honor their legacy. I’d hate to think some of our grandmothers survived that just for us to end up like little brown versions of the white women they used to work for. 

In Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris said that it was Viola Davis’ performance that made the film work.  I agree — and think it was very wise of Tate to make hers the narrator’s voice of the film.  Her character, and her performance are in every way the heart of the story.

Using her controlled physicality, her low voice, and her radar for realism, she quiets the movie down — which it desperately needs — and turns herself into the embodiment of the pain, compromise, and strength The Help otherwise struggles to get right. Davis’ integrity melds so seamlessly with Aibileen’s that her work is wrenching on an almost unconscious level….

The New Republic tried to imagine a version of the movie that would please those who call it racist.

Harris means unconscious on the part of the audience, not on the part of Davis, whose thoughtful and layered approach to the role lends dignity to the film.

New York Press movie critic Armond White found it cozy and convenient by comparison to television’s “I’ll Fly Away” and Broadway’s “Caroline, or Change.”

Empathic storytelling like this has considerable charm, but newcomer Tate Taylor’s direction and adaptation of the book by Kathryn Stockett indulges prefeminist nostalgia more than it faces the complex realities of American racism. Finding erroneous humor in the way black women outsmarted their white mistresses through wily social courage and culinary artistry is deceptively attractive. To imply that all this has passed and can now be accepted by our advanced, socially tolerant era depends upon a certain falsification of how the black-white, mammy-mistress symbiosis operated. Taylor’s interest in updating historical embarrassments leads to a shallow view of a tradition that began in slavery but continues on in the casually sustained interplay of pain and affection, dependence and resentment.

The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris appeared on the Slate Culture Gabfest to discuss his review of “The Help.”

It’s possible both to like this movie – to let it crack you up, then make you cry – and to wonder why we need a broad, if sincere dramatic comedy about black maids in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 and ’63 and the high-strung white housewives they work for. The movie is too pious for farce and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time….“The Help’’ joins everything from “To Kill a Mockingbird’’ to “The Blind Side’’ as another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism.

And Thelma Adams writes:

on’t be fooled because it’s set among the knick knacks and bridge tables of Jackson, Mississippi – it carries a potent message for those with an open mind

If, like me, you believe the personal is political – a 60’s mantra — then the story of racism can be assembled from small intimate moments, and told from behind closed bathroom doors, in a single community – and that story can have a revolutionary impact. And that is the story of The Help….

You can critique the movie’s form – as Manohla Dargis described it “this big, ole slab of honey-glazed hokeum,” or George’s “rosy glow” headline – but the delivery system does not negate the complexity of the society it reveals. It’s not a simplistic thing. It’s not “oh evil white Southerners” or “wonderful black women that vacuum.” The central question is: what happens in a society where black women raise white children with love, and those white children grow up to terrorize black women?

That’s a unique and provocative question without an easy, rosy, candy-coated answer.

The same could be said about the merits of the movie.  I agree with at least some of all of the points made above.  And I especially agree with what one of the movie’s stars, Octavia Spencer, said when I visited the set last year: ”What I love about this book is that we are having the conversations so that we can stop having the conversations.”  That seems to me to be a good place to begin.





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My Visit to the Set of ‘The Help’ — Coming Next Week

Posted on July 9, 2011 at 8:00 am

One of the biggest surprise best-sellers of the past ten years is The Help, the first novel by Jackson, Mississippi native Kathryn Stockett.  It is now one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the year.  The story of the book takes place in Jackson in the early 1960’s, just before the Civil Rights era.  It is told in the alternating voices of black and white female characters including two maids, one quiet and thoughtful, one impulsive and outspoken, and a naive and awkward but earnest young Southern woman just out of college.  She decides to write a book with the stories of the maids of Jackson.  The book was rejected 60 times before it was published, but Sockett persisted and it became an international best-seller.

But her lifelong friend believed in the book from the beginning.  Actor Tate Taylor grew up with Stockett in Mississippi and he loved the book immediately.  He optioned it before it was published so that by the time the big movie studios came to her with offers she explained that she had already sold the movie rights and if they wanted to make the movie Taylor would have to direct it.  She knew his understanding of Jackson in the 1960’s was essential for the film.  Fortunately, one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, Chris Columbus (the first two “Harry Potter” movies) agreed.  He signed on as a producer to assure the studios that an experienced film-maker would be on hand.  And another close friend, Octavia Spencer, the actress who inspired one of the key characters, the irrepressible Minny, was cast in the role.

I could not have been luckier in making my very first-ever visit to a movie set a trip to Mississippi eleven months ago to see the filming of “The Help.”  And I am thrilled to be able to bring you the insights and interviews from my trip, including comments from Taylor, Columbus, Spencer, and co-stars Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Emma Stone, beginning Monday, July 11.

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