As regular readers of this blog know, "The Unenthusiastic Critic" is my girlfriend, N., who normally sits down with me—under protest—to watch movies that I feel represent unforgivable gaps in her movie education. This week, however, we're departing from the format, as N. joins me to watch a recent release that neither of us has seen before.
The truth is, I was pretty unenthusiastic myself, and had deliberately avoided going to see The Help in theaters. But I'm an awards-show addict, and when The Help received several nominations—not just from the (notoriously dubious) Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but also from the more respectable Screen Actors Guild—I knew I was going to have to watch it. You see, I make it a point to see as many nominated films as possible, so that when they win awards they don't deserve I can rant about them with a clear conscience. This year, I had a strong feeling I'd want to throw a proper, well-justified fit if The Help should happen to win anything, and so I decided I'd have to give it a look.
And because I couldn't face it alone, and because I thought the perspective of an African-American woman might be helpful, I approached the one person on the planet I knew wanted to watch The Help even less than I did: my girlfriend.
"You have fun with that," she said. "I'm not watching that shit." (To be fair, this is what she always says whenever I suggest we watch something for this blog.)
Me: Shouldn't you be supporting black movies?
She: That is not a black movie. Are there black actors and actresses in it? Sure. But that does not make it a black movie.
Me: How do you know that?
She: The whole premise of the movie is that it's the story of African-American women as told through this benevolent white chick. And from what I understand it's a very limited view of what life was actually like. So it's not a black movie.
Me: I think you might like it more than you expect. (Note: I don't actually believe this at all.) It's getting a lot of awards attention.
She: Yeah. You know what else did? The Blind Side.
Me: Did you see The Blind Side?
She: Hell no. Because, again, I've seen enough films about the Great White Hope coming to save the black people. I mean, fine, we can have those stories, but we don't have enough stories told through the African-American perspective, in our own voices, to balance out this treacly bullshit Hollywood puts out to feel good about themselves.
Me: You know, Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for The Blind Side. Maybe we should watch that one too.
She: We're not going to be doing that.
So it took some convincing, but—and I can only assume it's because she loves me—N. finally agreed to sit down with me and watch The Help with the tape-recorder running. We watched it On Demand ("Are we really going to pay six dollars for this bullshit?" N. asked), and were horrified at both the running time (146 minutes!) and description ("An inspirational story about very different women in the 1960s South who form an unlikely friendship…").
She: Uh huh. "Very different women." Yeah, some of them are white, and some of them are black. "Unlikely friendship." Mmm hmm. Jesus, I can't believe I'm watching this.
Me: It's the feel-good movie of the year.
She: It's going to make me want to vomit. And you know, I always leave these movies hating white people, so that's just going to be bad for you.
Me: I think you should be open-minded. It's probably going to win Best Picture, you know. It's this year's Driving Miss Daisy.
She: [Terrifying glare.]
Me: Could you vocalize, please? That glare is not going to show up on the recording.
She: I think it will. That's how powerful this glare is. You're going to hear a sizzle and a crack. It's going to sound like the recording from The Exorcist. [In demonic voice] "Fuck Driving Miss Daisy. Miss Daisy sucks cocks in hell!"
Me, I'm just feeling a warm glow of accomplishment: that's a reference she never would have made before we started doing this blog.
The Help, of course, is about about a young white woman who gathers stories from black maids in 1960s Mississippi, and publishes them anonymously to the shock and outrage of Jackson's white society. The novel was written by a white woman, Kathryn Stockett, and alternates narrators between the white protagonist, Skeeter, and two of the maids, Aibilene and Minnie.
One of the many criticisms the book received was for the voices of these black characters: among the many charges brought against the book in a statement from the Association of Black Women Historians is that the African-American characters speak in a "child-like, over-exaggerated 'black' dialect," resulting in an "irreverent depiction of black vernacular." The film has the same dialect problems, and it also attempts some of the same troubling narrative sleight-of-hand: it opens with a shot of Skeeter writing "The Help" at the top of a notebook page as she interviews Aibilene (Viola Davis), but it is Aibilene's voice we hear narrating, and soon she's not talking to Skeeter but narrating about Skeeter. So this story—written by a white woman, about a white woman who transcribes the stories of black women—tries to pretend instead to be about a black woman telling the story of a white woman. It's disingenuous, and a good example of the way the movie pretends to be something that it has no business pretending to be. This isn't a story told by black women. It isn't even a story about black women.
An interesting side-note: Kathryn Stockett, the author of the novel, was sued by a black maid named Ablene Cooper, who worked for Stockett's brother. Cooper claimed that Stockett based the character of Aibilene on her, using her name, likeness, and life experiences without Cooper's permission. The suit was eventually dismissed due to statutes of limitation, but it strikes me as all too believable that this novel about a saintly white woman who encourages black women to tell their stories was actually the product of an unethical white woman stealing those stories for her own financial gain.
She: Apparently she didn't see the irony in that.
Me: Apparently not.
This opening scene also tells us everything we really need to know about how little The Help really understands—let alone cares about—its black characters. Skeeter is interviewing Aibilene about her life, asking her a series of questions. "Did you know growing up that you would be a maid?" she asks, and Aibilene says, Yes, because her mother was a maid, and her grandmother was a house slave. "Did you ever dream of being anything else?" Skeeter asks, and Aibilene nods—but doesn't say what. She doesn't say, and Skeeter doesn't ask. "What does it feel like to raise a white child when your own child's at home being looked after by somebody else?" Skeeter asks, and again, Aibilene doesn't answer the question. In fact, this particular question gets asked several times throughout the film, and Aibilene never really answers it. Because The Help is not really interested in Aibilene's experiences, let alone her hopes and dreams and feelings. (That would be too depressing, too real, too complicated, too harmful to box-office sales.)
N. and I agree, however, that we both like Viola Davis, who is a good enough actress that she implies so much more about Aibilene than the movie itself knows about her. It's actually problematic, because Davis's performance lends the film a gravitas that it doesn't deserve.
She: I don't blame her. Black actors can take any roles they can get, and I don't judge them for that. And I like Viola Davis a lot. She was good in that movie with the nuns…What was it called?
Me: The Sound of Music?
She: [Withering glare.] No.
She: Yes! She was great in that. And I don't blame her for doing this: there must have been something in the script that spoke to her. But the problem is that there just aren't any other roles for black women to play, so these are the roles available to them.
She: Maids. Crack whores. Welfare queens. Sassy best friends.
Emma Stone plays Skeeter, who is apparently the only white girl in Mississippi who actually finished college instead of just snagging a husband like all her friends did. She's also, of course, the only white person in Mississippi to be completely untouched by the all-pervading culture of racism in which she grew up. If the movie had dared for one moment to suggest that Skeeter might have had some unconscious racist assumptions from spending her entire life in this position of privilege, I would have thought better of it.
But no, Skeeter is the one saintly white girl in Jackson, MS, as we see when she comes home and is reunited with her friends, who are a bunch of the most cartoonishly brainless Southern women ever assembled on-screen. (It is no defense of the rest of the film that the white characters are every bit as comically shallow and lacking in nuance as the black characters.)
Me: Forget black people, this movie is offensive to white people.
She: And hair.
One of Skeeter's old friends, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), announces herself as the Queen Racist Bitch because she's obsessed with whether the black characters might use the same bathroom she has to use. "They carry different diseases," she explains, and is leading an initiative to ensure that all houses in the city have to have a "colored bathroom."
She: I didn't know you could catch sickle-cell off a toilet seat.
In fact, someone who didn't know anything about racial inequality in this time period—someone, for example, like the writer of The Help—would conclude that the toughest issue facing black people in Mississippi in the '60s was where they were allowed to pee. Later in the movie, Minnie (Octavia Spencer)—who has the misfortune to work for Queen Pee—is ordered to go urinate outdoors during a hurricane; when she dares to use the indoor toilet instead, she's fired on the spot.
She: It's the little injustices that made life so hard.
Me: Just like in Driving Miss Daisy, it's all about where and when black people can "make water." I mean, that's pretty much why the civil rights movement happened, right?
She: Yep. Bathrooms, lunch counters, buses. That's about it.
Me: Hardly seems worth making a whole movie about.
Skeeter has gotten a job writing a cleaning column for the local paper, and since she doesn't know anything about cleaning she starts hitting Abilene up for tips. (She doesn't offer to pay Abilene for basically doing her job for her, of course.) She can't ask her own family's maid, because—in a subplot that goes nowhere interesting—Skeeter's mother (Allison Janney) has fired their maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson).
She: Every time someone needs an old ass slave, they haul Cicely Tyson out of retirement! She's WAY too good for this movie!
It's during these conversations with Abilene that Skeeter gets her brainstorm to write a book about "the help," in which she will interview the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi for their stories. It's presented like some kind of big expose, but the stories we hear are about how much the black maids love the little white children they care for, and about how "fryin' chicken jus' tend to make you feel better 'bout life."
She: What the fuck did she just say?
Yep, they love little white babies, and they love fried chicken. It is, as the Association of Black Women Historians pointed out, a horrifying return to the "Mammy" depiction of black maids:
"The Help's representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it."
It's true that The Help focuses on these women as just wanting to be part of the white families; the only injustice the movie knows is that the horrible white people don't love them the same way that they love the white people. What would have been far more interesting—and far more honest—is if the maids did think of it as nothing more than a job: if we saw that they hated their white employers and their fat white babies, and if we saw that they had lives and families of their own that they did care about. (The subplot about Constantine, for example, could have gone somewhere worthwhile: Skeeter wants to track her down and interview her for the book, and I hoped that she would find Constantine, and that Constantine would tell her to fuck off, having never really given a fart about her or her horrible family. That could have been a moment of truth: instead, it turns out Constantine, simple creature, has died from a broken heart after being separated from her beloved white people.)
Of all its many problems, the biggest issue with The Help is that it tells us nothing about what it would be like to be black in the Jim Crow South. The ever-present threat of violence, the routine sexual abuse, the constant dehumanization and fear, the lynchings, the Klan—none of these things are evident in The Help. All it manages to do is spare five minutes for a shallow and meaningless drop-in of the assassination of Medgar Evers, which—the film implies—is part of what inspires the black maids to take part in this world-changing book that Skeeter is writing.
She: Forest Gump did a better job of integrating history than this bullshit film.
Me: Why couldn't they just make a movie about Medgar Evers?
She: They did that already. It was called Ghosts of Mississippi, and it was all about the white people.
To suggest that The Help actually has some understanding of the reality of the South at this time, we get a few seconds of Evers speaking on the TV: "There is no state with a record that approaches Mississippi in inhumanity, murder, brutality, and racial hatred," he says.
She: NONE OF WHICH THIS MOVIE IS ACTUALLY ABOUT!
No, it's too busy obsessing over going to the bathroom. The scatological focus culminates in what is simultaneously the "comic" highlight of the film, its cathartic climax, and its deus ex machina: Minnie, in revenge for being fired, feeds Hilly a chocolate cream-pie made out of Minnie's own shit. This turns out to be the most important story in the book that Skeeter publishes, and a source of blackmail that removes any potential threat of retaliation from the evil White Queen. Because there were no problems in Jim Crow America that couldn't be solved with a good fecal prank.
I'm skipping over a lot of nonsense here—an unconvincing subplot about Skeeter's boyfriend, who dumps her for publishing the book; another subplot about a white woman (Jessica Chastain) to whom Minnie teaches the life-changing powers of frying chicken—but really, none of it is worth talking about. Nothing in The Help is worth talking about except how shallow, dishonest, and soul-suckingly bad it is.
"No one had ever asked me what it feel like to be me," Abilene says, near the end of the movie. "Once I told the truth about that, I felt free."
And it was at this point that we both threw up, just as though we'd been force-fed a retaliatory shit-pie.
Me: Well, that was inspirational.
She: In that it inspires me to read some books that were actually written by black women in the era? Yes.
Me: Why? What else could there possibly be to say on the subject?
She: Maybe the other 99 percent of what was actually happening?
Me: You just don't like movies.
She: I love movies. But if you're going to attempt to say something serious about racism, you need to rise to the fucking occasion. And if you can't, then just do us a favor and don't go there. Because you're not adding anything to the conversation. You're just making it easier for people to feel like they've thought about, or talked about, race, when they haven't.
Me: You know, I have to say, after watching this movie, I feel like I really, really don't know anything about what it was like to be a black maid in the '60s. Which is too bad, because if you actually made a movie about either of these two women, from their perspectives…
She: That would be a story worth telling. But they won't make that movie, because mainstream America puts no stock and no value on the story of the black woman, apart from whatever pathology they want to project onto her body. Whether it be social ills, or sexual impropriety, or whatever fucking theme they want to choose for the fucking day, that's the only story they want to tell about black women. And it's not honest, and it's not complete, and it just devalues what was actually a very complex history. So instead you get this fucking Disneyfication of history.
Me: Actually, this is a Disney movie.
She: Oh, is there a Help ride I can go on at Disneyland? Can I sweep? Is there a colored outhouse I can use? Is there a white baby I can take care of? Five tickets to take care of a white baby.
My girlfriend is hardly alone in her reaction to this film. On MSNBC, scholar Melissa Harris-Perry, for example, called the film "so ahistorical as to be inaccurate":
"I get that people want to feel good, and so we reduce racism to this sentimental notion that if you bake a problematic pie, somehow you can get the one white woman back. But the issues that faced African-American women were not Real Housewives of Jackson, Misssissippi/Mean Girls behavior. That's not what it was. It was rape. It was lynching. It was the burning of communities."
But none of that is in The Help.
She: I hate the self-congratulatory tone of these films. "Oh, this is really powerful, and we've really done something great and important." And you haven't. You haven't done shit. You haven't told their stories. You haven't even told your stories. And what makes it particularly odious to me is that I still have to sit here and watch bigoted white people be awful, which is a very real trigger, and elicits a very real response in me. But there's no payoff of presenting an authentic story or really dealing with the issues. So it pushes my buttons, and riles me up about racism, but it's all buffeted in this cream-pie film that is not even scraping the surface of what those lives were.
In their statement, the Association of Black Women Historians put it succinctly: "Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers."
But it's my girlfriend who gets the last word:
She: There's a real danger, because America already has a problem addressing its history in any real, substantial, and honest way. And what these movies do is make people believe that we're doing that. Now we've talked about it, now we know what was happening. And you haven't. Fuck that: that movie isn't a "triumph." What's a triumph is maintaining your voice when they're shoving this shit down your throat: that's a fucking triumph. That's a book worth writing, and that's a movie worth making. But they're not interested in that story, because that's not our use to them. And that's why I don't want to spend my time and energy on it. Because this piece of shit film isn't even worth being angry about.
Up Next for The Unenthusiastic Critic: We return to the original mission statement for this series, and N. watches a classic movie that everyone else on the planet has already seen: Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi masterpiece Alien.