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Culture Warrior: ‘The Help’ Can’t Help Itself

By  · Published on August 23rd, 2011

The Help has started a conversation that’s stretched far beyond the 137-minute confines of the film itself. And in its second week in a row atop the late-summer box office, the critical conversation surrounding the film has continued amidst (and, sometimes, against) the sleeper popularity it endures in a fashion similar to the success of the book it was based on. In interest of full disclosure, I have deliberately chosen by this point not to see The Help (perhaps a combination of my reservations against it combined with its daunting running time). However, in following the many editorials published in response to the film’s release, it oddly enough feels appropriate to comment on the conversation that the film has inspired without having seen it, as it’s a conversation that is hardly limited to the film itself.

The Help seems to represent a breaking point, the last piece of white liberal guilt that broke the clear-cut racial fantasies of Hollywood cinema’s back, so to speak. The film is bearing the brunt of a decades-long history of similarly minded feel-good studio fare about race relations. While The Help certainly has its full-throated detractors, one interesting component about the overall critical reaction to the film is that it is politically simplistic while also presenting good or perfectly competent filmmaking, carried by a couple of strong female performances at its center (which, when considering what’s lacking in terms of identity and representation in Hollywood, is itself no small miracle).

This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Hollywood movies can be ideologically problematic and still be “good movies,” and vice versa. For all intents and purposes, enjoying a film is never contradictory to being able to recognize its problems. Does the fact that The Help is receiving mostly positive critical marks make it more of a difficult ideological bull to wrestle with, in terms of either a critic’s relationship with the piece criticized and/or helping the flocks of theatergoers understand the film’s latent regressive shortcomings? Or is any potential cinematographic quality of the film itself simply asymptomatic of the larger problem, that Hollywood has become similarly adept in manifesting the white-savior-as-liberator-of-black-oppression archetype as they are in making superhero movies or re-launching franchises?

What isn’t ambiguous, however, is what the problems of the film (and the many films of its ilk) are. Too often in Hollywood, stories of the struggles of African Americans are told through what Eric Kohn calls a “vanilla filter,” often featuring a white character occupying the prominent or co-lead performance who then acts as liberator, and their resulting enlightenment is a major emotional focus (as seen in Remember the Titans, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mississippi Burning, Glory Road, Men of Honor, Driving Miss Daisy, etc.). In short, the white character is both emancipator and benefactor. Not to say that individuals in dominant classes haven’t historically played important roles in fighting for the civil rights of minorities, but in terms of Hollywood representation the framing of these stories through white perspectives is simply disproportionate and ultimately unnecessary, making little room for the more recurrent histories of black struggle as told and experienced by those who actually did, and continue to do, the struggling.

The second corresponding issue with films like this is the implicit assertion by the simplistic narratives of such films that these struggles are, in effect, over. At Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz puts it thusly:

“Even more problematic is the overriding sense – conveyed not just in “The Help,” but in so many historical movies – that the era being depicted is tucked safely away in the past, a closed chapter, and the collective insanity that gripped society has dissipated thanks to the efforts of good-hearted people like you, the viewer.”

Seitz goes on to connect this false closure with the stark terms in which racism is defined in films like these, where a world is conveniently divided between racists and saintly liberators, where the crime of racism is beholden to a few unquestionably tainted souls and never operates in implicit or complex systemic forms, where the question of exploitation of the oppressed despite the “good intentions” of the liberator is never brought to the table, and where – perhaps most importantly of all – the audience can never examine their own potential complicity. Hollywood requires closed endings, but racism in America – despite any accepted convenient historicizing of it – is open-ended and continuous, no matter how many inspiring true stories of integrated high school sports teams who finally learn to work together are told.

Hollywood resorts to what it (unfortunately) does best: telling the same story time and again in slightly different iterations. And as a result, audiences are, in James Rocchi’s words, “coddled, not challenged.” Nothing new is learned. Instead, Hollywood bestows on us the residual comfort of the familiar. Audiences leave their theaters simply retaining these perspectives reasserted rather than developed. This particular component makes me especially confused as to why audiences ostensibly find such films profound or revelatory, and why I specifically haven’t seen The Help: what does it have to say that most people don’t already know?

As Seitz points out, this narrative trope is hardly exclusive to Civil Rights-era storylines. Anything from Dances with Wolves to Schindler’s List to Cry Freedom fall under the same category. Admittedly, some very good movies are part of this problem to varying degrees. So the greatest offense of a film like The Help as articulated by recent editorials is not that it’s singlehandedly politically irresponsible or ideologically simplistic to an exceptional degree, the problem is that it’s in every way unexceptional, that it’s part of a trend that has become, at best, stagnant. While other Hollywood genres grow and develop through phases, films about people oppressed by the politics of identity refuse to build off the knowledge gained by their previous entries. And it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon.

But the conflicted critical responses to The Help evidence that the stagnation itself has gone beyond simple redundancy to the point of regression, that films like The Help should no longer be accepted as the default means of telling such stories. I’m always hesitant to embrace arguments that Barack Obama’s presidency signifies anything definitive about race relations in America, but it should at least tell us that our stories about race don’t need white protagonists.

Perhaps The Help has been given a greater weight than it alone can bear, for the implications shared between many of these editorials is that if The Help were released ten of fifteen years ago, this particular conversation may not have erupted to this degree. After all, should current movies have to pay for the sins of previous ones? However, there have been slight developments in this trope in recent years whose problems The Help seems specifically complicit to.

As you can likely gather by the titles of similar films listed before, the majority of films of this ilk are based on true stories, a fact that itself has acted as a bulwark to criticism. Despite that nothing was noted similarly in the trailers for The Help, I automatically imagined that this film too was based somewhere down the line in reality. To find out later that the film is based on a book that wasn’t published fifty years ago, but rather two years ago, was surprising to me, as is the fact that this film has been celebrated and consumed by audiences in the same manner as the previously mentioned “true stories.” These films have conditioned an accepted representation of the past to be a substitute for its own history.

It seems that The Help, then, is the logical extent of its own category: a film that is exclusively an exercise in Hollywood’s version of Civil Rights history without even the mandatory nod to a concrete basis in the real. History itself has become one with the “mythification” of that history through popular narratives. It’s a universalization of the trope that, along with present-set films like The Blind Side and Crash, marries the historical and the contemporary into the same moment, in which the experience of American race relations is a single repeated story unaltered throughout history.

While American independent cinema has, then and now, been able to address race relations with nuance and insight, in the mainstream there’s nothing to be found that addresses race relations as it is experienced today, or even as it was experienced then.

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