The Help: The Most Racist Anti-Racism Film Ever
The 2011 film The Help has many things going for it; Emma Stone, high emotions, Emma Stone, great acting, Emma Stone, timely humour, Emma Stone, skin crawling villains, Emma Stone, passing the Bechdel Test with flying colours, and most importantly Emma Stone.
But…it’s also racist. Why I hear you say? “It’s about civil rights! How can it be racist?!” The Help is based on 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett. It is semi-autobiograpgical as many of the plot elements and events are based on the real childhood moments of Kathryn Stockett. So the plot is basically a young white girl helps publish the underrepresented stories of the mistreated and underpaid black maids from her town. Now Stockett never did this in real life, so this is essentially a fantasy. A fantasy where Stockett lives out her desire to repay her childhood maids by creating a fiction of her coming to the rescue by literally giving black women their voice. Whilst the maids in the story have their backstories and motivations, none of them drive the narrative until the white girl decides to start writing stuff down. The reaction of the town’s people is what drives the narrative. So The Help is about a white girl writing about black women for other white people to get angry about. I was joking when I said Stone was the most important element, The Help is not.
And then there is the reliance on the mammy stereotype… To those who don’t know this stereotype is of the black female servant, who is often overweight, who loyally and passionately serves their white master/employer. They also often have great affection for the master/employer’s kids too. Hey…that all kinda sounds like the characters in The Help…
Early in the narrative Emma Stone’s white girl signs on for a job at the local paper, her idea for a story is the previously mentioned maid’s stories. To pitch it she talks about how much she loves her old maid and how these mammies need to be talked about in a more positive and heroic light. That’s right, she actually specifically refers to the mammy stereotype as a good category of people. So now The Help is literally saying these women’s stories need to be told because they’re heroes, except that they’re heroes because of how much they help and love small white kids in their care. Let’s recap; The Help is about a white girl writing about some black maids because their worth is serving white people, for some other white people to talk about.
Now I hear you, it’s enjoyable film and its heart is in the right place. “It can’t be all that bad? It’s got more than one black female character who is fully developed.” Yes, but as I pointed out before, the story isn’t about them. It’s about the white girl and how it affects her standing in the town. All the character choices that drive the narrative are made by white people; maids getting hired and fired, the choice to write the book and to publish it and so on. The only choices the maids get to make that affects the narrative are to let the white girl write their stories down. They’re there to enable the white girl’s story. “But what about its good heart?” Its good heart is of an author who decided she felt bad and appreciative for her own childhood mammy figure and decided to immortalise herself as a heroic Mary Sue who champions the poor voiceless black women. When she decided to write a book on this topic based on her own experiences she had a choice, make herself the villain to highlight injustice or alleviate guilt by lying and inventing fictional heroism.
Now yes, Stockett wouldn’t be able to write a story from the maid’s perspective. She was on the other side of this horrible dynamic. It would most likely be inappropriate and problematic for her to even try. But as I said previously, she could have written a semi-autobiographical piece where she was the villain, or at least ambivalent about the whole thing. She chose to make herself the condescending hero. It also stands out that the studio chose to green light a story from a white perspective. It’s not much of a leap to assume that plenty of well written and accurate scripts have been written on the topic of black maids from a black perspective. It is a role of suffering from history that was shared by many many people and yet it has barely been mined for story opportunities. Those scripts must be out there.
In conclusion, The Help’s ethics are fatally compromised. It isn’t really about black women finding their voices, but a white girl finding them for them. The film itself is more likely aimed at a white audience, the audience that most likely has guilt it wants cheaply alleviated. I suppose it’s nice to have a film with a basically all female ensemble cast. There was no pandering to a male audience. In fact there were only two male characters, both were black and one beat his wife…oh wait…that’s more bad stereotyping…Wait, now you’re telling me that the book also had the white characters dialogue in perfect grammar and the black characters spoke with overly accented fractured grammar? Wow, this just gets worse the more you dig. At least Hollywood doesn’t make a habit of making films about black people with white leads…