One of Christopher Hitchens’ finest moments as a journalist came when he allowed himself to be waterboarded for the purpose of writing about torture. What courage. That was the George Plimpton, participatory-writer ethic taken to an amazing extreme. I would like to think I would do the same. I once seriously considered smoking crack just for the purpose of writing about what it feels like. (I didn’t, because what if I liked it and woke up years later having not written the story and instead having destroyed my life?) But recently I submitted to something I knew would be painful out of writerly masochism. It was not as serious as being waterboarded by Marines, but it was, to me, torture. I went to see The Help.
I hated it. It was like visual waterboarding being in that world where blacks are basically a step away from slaves. This is no metaphor: they discuss being willed down through generations and thus feeling owned. “We living in hell! Trapped!” a maid says. The specter of violence surrounds them, though it all occurs offstage, whether it’s the assassination of a black leader or domestic violence visited upon a maid by her husband. The total lack of physical consequences for the maids’ courageous act of literary civil disobedience is historically absurd, though it does fit with the sanitized tone of the movie. People who argue that it’s a realistic movie are incorrect: the men of Jackson, Miss., would have killed several of these maids. The happy ending we get — Viola Davis’ Aibileen walking home unharmed as the screen fades to black — is fraudulent and so surreally absurd as to be Dalí-esque.
I’m not sure why so many people flocked to spend hours in this world of American apartheid. Do whites like visiting a world where blacks are docile and controlled and the racial hierarchy is clear? Or do they like seeing a white girl saving blacks? Could the success of The Help be divorced from national subconscious anxiety about a future that includes minority status for whites and the loss of total power, as symbolized by the first black President? Or is it easy to watch because of an incorrect sense of having reached a world beyond racism?
I don’t see any of The Help‘s journey as pleasurable for anyone: black women are oppressed and fight back in a passive-aggressive way. (Black men are all but invisible in this world.) Whites are mostly evil, or else sheep: soulless and brainless. It’s a Lifetime-y simplistic movie, a Disneyfication of segregation, with a gross and unintentionally comical stereotype parade marching through it. There’s the ditzy blonde who can’t manage to do anything but get dressed. There’s the callous ice queen who thinks blacks have special diseases that can be transmitted by sharing a toilet. There’s the undeterrable do-gooder. And then there are the blacks who are the latest iteration of that Hollywood staple: the magical negro. They are blacks who arrive in the lives of whites with more knowledge and soul and go on to teach whites about life, thus making white lives better.
Magical negroes exist so that the knowledge and spirit that comes from blackness can enlighten or redeem whites who are lost or broken. Think of Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Anthony Mackie in The Adjustment Bureau and Sir Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus in The Matrix. In The Help, Octavia Spencer’s Minnie actually says to a white woman, “Frying chicken just makes you feel better about life.” I must be doing it wrong. Once the ditzy blonde learns to use Crisco properly, she does indeed feel better about life. Even though she has just learned that she’s probably infertile. Minnie helps turn her boss lady into a regular Martha Stewart, and what does she get out of it? The promise of lifetime employment as the family maid. Thank yuh, ma’am. Davis’ Aibileen tells the white kids she’s raising, “You is important,” while being constantly reminded that she is not.
The magical negro role is offensive because despite his or her wisdom and, often, supernatural power, the black character is subordinate to weakened whites. They are there only to help whites. This relates to screenwriter James McBride’s recent assertion that in cinematic terms we’re often what he calls “cultural maids.” He means we’re there to service white characters — not always literally serving them but functioning as a vehicle for them to show or prove their morality and heroism or both. We appear as mere props in white lives. McBride says, “Only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid. Because you’re a kind cultural maid. You serve up the music, the life, the pain, the spirituality. You clean house.”
Outside of the films produced by the small number of black filmmakers and the rare George Lucas or Quentin Tarantino, black characters and stories are almost always relevant only in terms of what they do for or bring out of white characters. Our lives are valuable solely because of how white characters respond to them. I never imagined white supremacy would rest when the theater lights went down, but isn’t anyone else tired of seeing whites save blacks and blacks magically improve white lives?
I wouldn’t have gone to see The Help but for the Oscar race’s raising a conundrum. A movie that is loathsome to many blacks has given people we respect — Davis and Spencer — a serious shot to win an Oscar. But their progress comes as two steps forward, one step back: Davis and Spencer have acquired the talent and access to be players in Hollywood but are reduced to updating Hattie McDaniels. I can’t blame them; large roles don’t come along every month, and sometimes an actor has to take what’s available. I once (politely) asked George Clooney why he does bad movies. You’d think he had access to every great script he wanted. He said, You’d be surprised. There aren’t many great ones, and he has to work every so often to keep his name aloft and because there are many people in Hollywood who rely on his working. Davis and Spencer aren’t in a position to reject work like this without risking their status in Hollywood. I just hope they use their growing power to create more progressive and revolutionary images.
Many are rooting for Davis to win Best Actress while rooting against The Help for other major awards, an interesting bit of intellectual Twister. It’s hard to divorce the two. But you can: you don’t win an Oscar just for your performance in a film. Academy Awards are not purely meritocratic: they reflect on your body of work and popularity in Hollywood as well as the role in question. I found Spencer’s performance to be impressive, as it showed great subtlety and range. She leaped from a quiet demeanor to electrified while striking back at the empire to sweetly overwhelmed when her character is finally treated humanely. But Davis is another issue. Her career has been strong, her talent is immense, and she plays a courageous character — but the role of Aibileen does not give her much of a chance to turn in an extraordinary performance. In the movie’s final scene, she rises to the occasion with dignified defiance toward evil women and then quickly pivots to show melancholic tenderness to a child. Yet for most of the film, she’s in an emotional straitjacket, giving us understated dignity while doing the classic black actor’s segregation dance: stiff demeanor, quiet voice, body and mind, always nonthreatening. Davis is given less of a chance to make an acting transformation than Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady or Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn. In The Help, Davis shows less emotional range than Spencer and evinces less acting power than she did in her brief but awesome part in Doubt. Davis is one of Hollywood’s best actresses, but this is not a superlative Davis performance. Still, I can’t help but root for the sister.
A large part of the Oscar exercise is about Hollywood’s selling itself to the world. The major acting awards can anoint new superstars, moving people from stars (or barely knowns) into the firmament. The Best Actress race is truly Davis vs. Streep, and to give another Oscar to Streep would only reaffirm what everyone already knows: that she is one of the greatest actresses of all time. To give the Oscar to Davis would transform her career and, to some extent, transform Hollywood by creating a new superstar. And that’s good for business. A vote for Streep is a vote for the status quo. A vote for Davis is a vote for a changed future. Wouldn’t that be something, if Davis played a maid and ended up changing the world — of Hollywood?