Not Helping

This is, by far, the most important critique of The Help I've yet to see:


Forty-eight years after Martin Luther King Jr. was accompanied by tens of thousands of black domestic workers to the National Mall in Washington to demand economic justice, it is not all that difficult to render black fictional characters with appealing attributes and praiseworthy talents. What is more difficult to accomplish is a verisimilar rendering of the white characters. 

This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists. 

There's a problem, though, with that message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not. 

Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It's the fallacy of "To Kill a Mockingbird," a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals. 

But that wasn't the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man's Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. 

Precisely. This is the Racist Child Molester Serial Killer theory of America. Racists--should they even exist--are not people we know, but people who existed either in some distant history or in a far off cave somewhere. Though not totally the case in The Help, class and geography are oft-used means of distancing. Hence racism doesn't exist in polite society but among those "other people" who we do not know. But there's always some other people. And everyone thinks their "polite."

It's worth remember that people brought their spouses and children to lynchings, that they kept gory reminders of the work on store counters. I'm sure many of these people were good parents, good spouses and deeply committed to their society. But it's much more comforting to imagine them racists as Lex Luthor evil and Jeffrey Dahmer depraved

For if we admit that racists--and by extension homophobes and misogynists--are not some alien species, but that they walk among us, then we must also admit that we are subject to looking past their flaws, and that we, ourselves, are subject to the same impulses. And then finally we must begin to see how easily we could have lived, in that time, and done nothing. Or done something horrible. 

The stereotype of the wife-beating, baby-roasting, Southern racist isn't about the past as it was, it's about the future as it is now.

On a sidenote, I've refrained from commenting on The Help. The expectation that a people's  entertainment will generally be more progressive than the people themselves, strikes me as bizarre.

Besides, I'm Team Viola Davis.
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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