To commemorate our trip to the Final Four tournament, my college rugby team made a fairly impromptu music video featuring Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” It comprised of us dancing and lip-syncing like goofballs, all the while actually believing that the color of our skin didn’t matter. We were sisters, teammates, and eventually national champions. Today, the video reflects fond memories I have with teammates of all colors and backgrounds. When I think of “race relations,” those sweet expressions of unity and friendship are the summary of my limited personal experience; but I know that for my Black brothers and sisters, this is not the case. The fictional character Aibileen recalls the wrongful death of her son, saying, “The anniversary of his death comes every year and I can’t breathe, but to y’all it’s just another day of Bridge.” It’s this disparity in perspective that is stirring me to educate myself and increase my own awareness of racial injustice in the country I love.
The movie The Help (2011) has received both warm praise and heavy criticism. While some heralded it as inspirational, others claimed it was whitewashed, watered-down, and even harmful in combating real racism. Even actress Viola Davis, who was nominated for multiple awards for her portrayal of the previously mentioned Aibileen, expressed her disappointment with the film’s inability to focus on the characters that comprise its title, going as far as to say she regretted starring in it. I agree with her; the movie would have been better had it played out as the stories of a dozen black maids, interweaving with each other to actually answer the question “What is it like to be a Black maid in the 60s?” Instead, it spends considerable time on Skeeter (played by Emma Stone), a young, White post-grad who has an awakening to the atrocity and hypocrisy of her culture. Some would attribute this oversight to the author of the novel on which the film is based, claiming that she was not the right person to tell the stories of black maids because she is White. I disagree with the logic but consent that the story was not sufficiently focused on those it claims to represent. In spite of that and its other flaws, I still think The Help is worth watching.
The reason I make that statement is this: the story is not about fighting racism or injustice. There are other and better depictions of what it takes to combat an uneven and dangerous playing field. What I love about The Help is how it iterates the nature of relationships that exist in defiance of social injustice and inequality before the law. The character Aibileen works in the homes of 17 children and helps to raise them, often speaking of how much she grows to love them. These bonds run deep, but they are eradicated and defiled by a system that dehumanizes a member of that family unit based on pigmentation. I feel like The Help is actually a story about developing trust sufficient to cross imaginary lines with too-horrible-to-imagine risks. The process of collecting the interviews of the help shows the importance of listening, even if you don’t like what you hear. It’s not a White woman playing savior to a Black woman; it’s Black women and White women learning to trust each other with the truth. The precious, familial bond portrayed in The Help reminds me of what is at stake if we allow injustice to continue. It proves that there is power in telling our stories, or at least sharing the stories that inspired or changed us. And it’s the only reason I’m sharing my limited perspective at all.
I’m grateful for those critical of The Help because they offer insights that I could not see on my own, and that has shaped the way I watch the film today. But I think to discount the film completely is a mistake. There is value in stories about friendships and personal trust developed between individuals with diverse backgrounds; yes, it’s remedial and at times cheesy (it’s distributed by Disney, after all). Like Remember the Titans (2000), it sacrifices the gritty reality of the past for palatable victories in manageable conflicts. As far as education, it’s about as informative as my rugby team’s music video. But as long as it serves as an appetizer and not your one and only course, The Help can leave you with warm fuzzies and hope that things can get better; that despite differences we can actually come to understand each other and, together, work for real change. This is just one of the films that the team at Backseat Directors will be discussing; don’t let it be the only one you watch.