'The Help': Softening Segregation for a Feel-Good Flick

Even more than in the book, the film downplays the ugliness of Jim Crow and fixates on the goodness of its white protagonist

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“How do you try to feel like a good country when you’ve done shitty things as an entire nation?”

That question came from comedian Louis C.K. at the end of a recent episode of his sitcom Louie. He’d been contemplating how to explain to his daughters the many uses of “nigger” in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. But he could have asked the same question when thinking about The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular novel about black domestic workers and the women who employed them in 1960s Mississippi, the movie adaptation of which arrives in theaters today.

Stockett’s novel presented a vision of segregation in service of a feel-good story, but the film version of The Help is even more distant from the virulence of American racism. Its villains, Junior League bigots who wear smart little suits to cover their scales, are so cartoonish that viewers won’t risk recognizing themselves or echoes of their behavior in them. The heroines—a privileged, liberal, white Mississippi woman named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) and two black domestic workers, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (a particularly good Octavia Spencer)—are much easier to identify with. The project that brings them together, a secret oral history of maids’ lives in Jackson, may spotlight the domestic side of racism. But other than a mention of unenforced minimum-wage laws and a scene of the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ murder, the movie is disengaged with the public legal framework that let white women treat their white servants dreadfully in private. In The Help, whether you’re black or white, liberation’s just a matter of improving your self-esteem.

In The Help, whether you're black or white, liberation's just a matter of improving your self-esteem.

From its initial publication, The Help was met with criticism from writers like the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, although also with upbeat reviews and a rapturous commercial reception (it has sold more than five million copies). The black characters in the novel speak in fairly heavy, sentimentalized dialect. The local civil rights movement originates from a naive white girl, not an organized, black-led movement. Worse, earlier this year, a woman named Ablene Cooper who has worked for Kathryn Stockett for more than a decade sued Stockett, claiming that she had lifted Cooper’s life story in a way that was damaging to her. Whether or not the complaint has merit, it resonated with critics of the novel who see The Help as yet another appropriation of black struggles to heap laurels on a white character.

The problem isn’t that white people weren’t involved in the Civil Rights movement. Stanley Nelson’s marvelous documentary Freedom Riders follows both the black riders who started the historic anti-segregation journey and the white riders who joined them—and who, on some stops, were beaten worse than their counterparts for being supposed race traitors. Janie Forsyth McKinney, who was just 12 at the time, gave water and medical care to the Freedom Riders after the men of her community attacked the activists’ Greyhound bus outside her father’s convenience store. Stories like hers should indeed be told.

But there’s danger in treating racial discrimination as if it’s equivalent to other forms of hardship, which other recent civil rights movies have repeatedly done. John Waters’ original 1988 dance-competition movie Hairspray was quite pointed in its depictions of racial anxiety: Two anti-integrationists plot to bomb a dance competition, and there’s a very funny scene where several characters talk themselves out of jail by exploiting white fears of miscegenation. But on Broadway and in the 2007 Hollywood musical update, stories about white overweight characters and their self-confidence were elevated to the point where prejudice towards certain body weights appeared nearly as important and deeply entrenched as racism. 2009’s Invictus, far and away the most commercially successful movie about the struggle to overcome apartheid in South Africa (if one doesn’t count Lethal Weapon 2), is concerned less with the people who fought, like activist Steve Biko, than with white South Africans who needed to find a way to demonstrate that they could represent their entire country.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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