Is The Help the Most Loathsome Movie in America?

I'm not sure why so many people flocked to spend hours in this world of American apartheid. For me, watching The Help was like visual waterboarding. Still, Viola Davis should win the Oscar for Best Actress

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DreamWorks

Viola Davis in The Help

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?

(MORE: Touré on Nostalgia: Our Favorite Cultural Cop-Out)

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.

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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?

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13 comments
Tellit
Tellit

In your criticism you say that one issue is that the black characters are there to help the whites. Respectfully, I think you missed an important point. In this story, both white and black characters overcame fear and empowered themselves, thus helping bring awareness to the other characters and to a new generation of movie viewers. Yes it's cliche, but the ancient paradigm of coming-of-age-via-overcoming-fear works because it resonates with the human spirit.

winnie
winnie

You point out the action’s which you appropriate and suspect. I agree with that the movie mention many problems of racial discrimination. Such as the whites regard the blacks as slaves so that we can face these serious problems. On the other hand, you point out that the identity of film role such as the black maid who is a intellectual is different from the general blacks.It may not conform with the real society.I agree with this as well.It is supposed to use some film roles who are familiar to the real society so that audiences would fine an echo in the hearts.

yiyin0820
yiyin0820

I almost agree with your opinions, but I think that the word
''smart'' which you use to describe blacks is weird.
In my opinion, blacks are not smart. They just submit to their
fate being the underpriviledged minority.
Their life are so difficult to be changed, so they choose to
live a suppressed but secure life.

殷黎黎
殷黎黎

Though I agree with your opinion about the depicting of how a black maid successfully revolting against whites in this film was too weak and lack persuasion, The Help is a movie, the producer had to give consideration and tailor to popular taste. In my opinion, The Help raised the interest in racial discrimination of the masses, and it’s enough to be a good movie.

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Jenny325
Jenny325

Okay, there are some grammatical errors in your comments like fragments or comma splice. Your thesis statement is not very specific. I can tell that you want to compare your opinion to the author's. But you divide them into two parts which makes your audience cannot follow some thoughts. You can compare them point by point and this will make the statement clearer. One more advice, some sentences do not connect each other very well and the conclusion is a bit short. BTW, does your course require that you have to give comments in "formal" tone? If so, delete some colloquial language. Good luck!

judy780307
judy780307

We can find black maids made good relationship with children in white family
from the movie. As an example, the little girl takes Aibileen as her real
mother. Another example is based on the reason why Skeeter wants to write the
book about black maids. One of the reasons to is that Skeeter was raised by
black maid named “Constantine”. Constantine help Skeeter going through a lot of
difficult. In additional, I would like the movie focus on how the children
raised by black maid will treat black maid after they grow up rather than the
fight between white and black.

judy780307
judy780307

Even though the movie can’t reflect the reality exactly, we still can learn
something from it. As you mention that black maids play an important role in
white family. In my opinion, you can give more detail to support your ideal.

kayfbm7766
kayfbm7766

It seems that we can't post our comment in the same comment space. We had separate our comment into three paragraphs (comment). We would appreciate your advices. 

kayfbm7766
kayfbm7766

We agree that the film simplifies the issue of racial discrimination. Obviously, it’s too easy for black maids to successfully revolt against whites in the films. Black maids rebelling against whites must cause unexpectedly horrible consequences. However, there are some issues we disagree with. First, blacks aren’t docile but smart. It is too dangerous to use such an aggressive approach to obtain their right. They just protect themselves by using a peaceful method like writing their own stories. Second, the author mentions the magic blacks are subordinate to weakened whites. Even though whites are like this, the black maids actually play an important role in their life. In addition, Skeeter tries to befriend with blacks and support the maids to publish their stories. Third, the magical blacks have ability to learn new skills and quickly adopt themselves to such difficult situations. They know how to get along with white family and how to survive in a highly oppressive society. Finally, the author cites what McBride says “only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid.” Nevertheless, blacks’ values are not built on whites. They actually create their values. Their value is based on what do they do for their family and society. To sum up, “The Help” is a touching movie. We will recommend this movie to our friends.

kayfbm7766
kayfbm7766

Before we remark on this article, we have to mention that we live in a harmonious society and a peaceful country. We don’t know the history of racial discrimination in America very much. From this angle, we want to share our thoughts about the review of “The Help.” After reading it, we find the movie is different from the reality. Even though it is a historically absurd, we don’t totally agree with the commentator.

kayfbm7766
kayfbm7766

     In the Times article ‘‘Is The Help the Most Loathsome’’ by Touré (Feb.02, 2012), the author criticizes “The Help” as visual waterboarding being in that world where blacks are basically a step away from slaves. He hates the film for some reasons. First, the ending is happy but it is fraudulent and absurd. That’s because some of the scenes in the film are not consistent with the reality. Second, he points out this film has an incorrect sense of reaching a world beyond racism. The blacks in the film seem to be too docile, and they just fight back in a passive way. Eventually, he mentions the magical negro is offensi ve because the blacks are there to service whites and to prove whites’ morality and heroism.

kayfbm7766
kayfbm7766

Dear sir or madam:
We are writing class students from Taiwan. After watching the movie "The Help" and this review, we would like to share our ideals about them. Our idea as following composition. We are welcoming any comments about our opinion. Thank you very much.