On ‘The Help’ And Moral Reckonings

I was actually prepared to like The Help, mostly on the grounds that I adore Emma Stone, and I think there’s space for movies about white allies in the Civil Rights movement (though such a thing is incredibly hard to do right and to my knowledge, no one ever has) and value in making interracial solidarity as aspirational as a nice handbag. The book is deeply flawed, but has some merits. But the movie, which I reviewed for The Atlantic, is worse on almost every count:

Stockett’s novel presented a vision of segregation in service of a feel-good story, but the film version of The Help is even more distant from the virulence of American racism. Its villains, Junior League bigots who wear smart little suits to cover their scales, are so cartoonish that viewers won’t risk recognizing themselves or echoes of their behavior in them. The heroines — a privileged, liberal, white Mississippi woman named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) and two black domestic workers, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (a particularly good Octavia Spencer) — are much easier to identify with. The project that brings them together, a secret oral history of maids’ lives in Jackson, may spotlight the domestic side of racism. But other than a mention of unenforced minimum-wage laws and a scene of the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ murder, the movie is disengaged with the public legal framework that let white women treat their white servants dreadfully in private. In The Help, whether you’re black or white, liberation’s just a matter of improving your self-esteem…

Indeed, the movie, which necessarily sacrifices some character development in the name of space and speed, also conspicuously cuts out powerful illustrations of racial violence. While we get soft-hued flashbacks to Skeeter’s memories of Constantine, the black woman who raised her, there are no such flashbacks to the violent, unnecessary death of Aibileen’s son. In another scene, Yule May, one of Minny and Aibileen’s friends, is arrested for stealing a ring from her employer. The shot shows white police manhandling and cuffing her, but when they swing at her head with a baton, the impact of the weapon against her skull is cut out of the frame. An incident of racial violence that illustrates the cost of the main villain’s quest for separate bathrooms for African-American servants is left out of the movie entirely. Even a notably gory miscarriage scene from the book is reduced to a blood-soaked nightgown and an artfully smeared bathroom floor visible only for a moment.

I do think there’s value in exploring racism from a domestic perspective on out rather than from a movement level on down to the personal one. But I don’t actually think you can separate the individual practice of Jim Crow segregation from the legal framework and social norms that sustained it. One woman underpaying her maid and failing to pay employment taxes is a bad person — the systematic exclusion of black domestic workers from the minimum wage and Social Security systems that allows her to do it is horrifying. It’s much easier to grapple with Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, or with the death of an individual black man in the South, than it is to accept that the rape and murder of black people in large parts of this country was, for a long time, essentially legal. But it’s the latter truth that’s important. We can say that people who mistreat the people who work for them, who are sexually coercive employers, and who commit individual murders are not us, that we would never do such things. Facing the actual structures that enforced and perpetuated racism, and that have impacts that are felt to this day, means admitting our own complicity.