Racist Or Raving: What Critics Are Saying About “The Help”

Unavoidable this week: everybody going coo-coo-bananas about “The Help,” which opened in theaters last night. “The Help” is based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same title, which tells the story of Skeeter, a young white woman who gets a job writing for her local newspaper in a small Mississippi town, and Aibileen, a black maid who works for one of Skeeter’s childhood friends. Skeeter returned from college to find all the friends she grew up with are married with children and employers to black “help,” who are second-class citizens in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. The story follows Skeeter as she interviews Aibileen and other black maids for a secret book project that exposes the ugly day-to-day racism in Jackson’s domestic life to the rest of the world.

Some critics, both armchair and professional, say the new flick starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Allison Janney is a white-washed, even racist version of the civil rights movement that praises a white woman as the savior of the poor black folks. (Cough “The Blind Side” cough.) They ask why Hollywood makes films about civil rights through the lens of white people, instead of giving due credit to the African-Americans who fought for their rights. And that is certainly a worthy question to ask.
Others (me, for instance) read and loved the book and are excited to see the movie, imperfect as the narrative may be. (Though I agree it would be better for Hollywood to make films that tell a more less white-centric narrative.)

I bring this up because we had a big discussion about “The Help” in The Frisky offices this morning, with some of us saying there is no way we would see the movie in protest and others defending the filmmakers, the author, and Hollywood at large. (That’s a shock, I know.)

We’ll probably never be able to come to a consensus about “The Help” and all the armchair critics in the world won’t, either. Whether you decide to see the movie or not, or to read Kathryn Stockett’s novel or not, is up to you. To help give you an idea of some of the controversy surrounding “The Help” I’ve rounded up the criticism from all angles, after the jump:

From Martha Southgate at Entertainment Weekly:

“Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation. … This isn’t the first time the civil rights movement has been framed this way fictionally, especially on film. … Why is it ever thus? Suffice it to say that these stories are more likely to get the green light and to have more popular appeal (and often acclaim) if they have white characters up front. That’s a shame.”

From Akiba Solomon at Colorlines:

“As a racial justice and gender writer, a pop culture observer, and an African American woman who rides for Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Cicely Tyson and Aunjanue Ellis, I feel obligated to see this film. But, damn it, I’m jaded, and it has absolutely nothing to do with watching black women portray domestic workers onscreen. There’s no shame in domestic work, unless you’re talking about their employers’ abuse and wage exploitation. I just can’t bring myself to pay $12.50 after taxes and fees to sit in an aggressively air conditioned, possibly bed bug-infested New York City movie theater to watch these sisters lend gravitas to Stockett’s white heroine mythology. I’m sorry, but the trailer alone features way too many group hugs to be trusted.”

From Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post:

“One of those truths, which “The Help” deserves praise for bringing to light, is that racism should be understood less as a matter of black grievance than of unexamined white privilege and pathology. … [Racist character] Hilly’s monstrousness is in keeping with “The Help’s” tendency to reduce its characters to stock types, but it has the effect of enabling white viewers to distance themselves from racism’s subtler, more potent expressions.”

Tami at What Tami Said:

“This is my worry: That even if “The Help” film gets it right, viewers will see just another movie about a spunky, young, white girl, setting the world on fire, while the lives, stories and agency of black women remain invisible.”

And last but not least, what I thought was the strongest review of “The Help”: Wesley Morris at The Boston Globe:

“The movie is too pious for farce and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time. … The death of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers is reported on television, so white supremacy is in the air, but the movie would have us believe that the racism of the time was the stuff of bridge clubs. Indeed, the meanest male in the movie is the abusive, mostly unseen black husband who, in a poorly made sequence, comes after Minny. … “The Help’’ comes out on the losing end of the movies’ social history. The best film roles three black women will have all year require one of them to clean Ron Howard’s daughter’s house. It’s self-reinforcing movie imagery. White boys have always been Captain America. Black women, in one way or another, have always been someone’s maid. These are strong figures, as that restaurant owner might sincerely say, but couldn’t they be strong doing something else? That’s the hardest thing to reconcile about Skeeter’s book and “The Help’’ in general.”

Have you seen “The Help” movie or read The Help book? What do you think of the criticisms people have of the narrative? Let us know in the comments.

Want to contact the writer of this post? {encode=”[email protected]” title=”Email her”}!