White Characters and Black Liberation, From ‘The Help’ to ‘Twelve Years a Slave’

One of the most interesting and difficult parts of the debate over The Help, the Oscar-winning adaptation of a novel about a young white woman who documents the lives of maids in her Mississippi community, was over the appropriate role of white characters in cultural depictions of the Civil Rights movement. There’s no question that white people participated in the Civil Rights movement with great bravery, and in some cases were targeted for additional violence for the sin of siding with black protesters rather than white bigots. But there’s also no question that the Civil Rights movement is not the product of benevolent white liberals, and that it’s proper to acknowledge white participation in the movement as the work of allies rather than as progenitors. But pop culture likes telling stories about people who are at the center of the frame, frequently elevating allies to central roles. So what’s a well-intentioned storyteller to do?

I’ll be curious to see if Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, an adaptation of a true story of a free man who was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and redeemed out of it through the hard work of his wife and a white New York lawyer, has some answers. Chiwetel Ejiofor is set to play the main character, Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender will play the plantation owner, and Brad Pitt will play the lawyer who represented Northup. As much as stories of black empowerment are critically important to tell, it’s also important to illustrate the depths of white brutality, and to acknowledge that in a deeply racist system, there were certain functions only white people could perform, and certain avenues that they had privileged access to.

But even so, I still want my Harriet Tubman biopic.