• News

The New Republic Defends The Help

‘The Help’ Isn’t Racist. Its Critics Are. John McWhorter August 17, 2011 | 12:00 am In the week since its release, The Help, a movie telling the story of a group of black maids in the South in the early 1960s, has been derided repeatedly in blog posts and reviews as a lazy collection of racist tropes, an irredeemable expression of naive bigotry. In an article in the New York Times, film critic Nelson George condemns the filmmakers for failing to properly “come to terms” with America’s racist past. In her review, the University of Georgia’s Valerie Boyd simply called The Help  “a feel-good movie for a cowardly nation.” But I suspect more than a few Americans—many of them black—are coming out of The Help asking their companions “Um, was that movie really racist?” The answer, simply, is no—and the absence of bigotry in the film ought to be apparent to anyone watching it with an open mind. Unfortunately, many people obviously aren’t. But the ubiquity of the insults against The Help, despite its evident lack of racism, is itself instructive. All too often, charges of racism are the products not of reasoned analysis, but cognitive dissonance: an implacable pique at white America for never quite “owning” its racism, despite a lack of clarity as to just what this owning would entail. It is a frame of mind that is the product of one of the glummest detours in black history. Just when the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts gave thoughtful black people the grounds for a truly autonomous and positive racial self-image, identity politics and the hard-left turn in the world of letters taught instead that that there was a higher wisdom in hearkening ever back to despair. The second shoe having yet to drop, many blacks have been left with a self-conception that is perpetually incomplete—they are ever-questing, ever-owed, never truly whole. Told they were nothing for centuries, many black people are choosing to keep that legacy alive by assailing the depredations of an abstract and evil other, rather than adopt a more self-directed and positive self-image. In media criticism, this world view manifests itself in the pedantic dismissal of nearly all commercially viable depictions of black people as stereotypes, insults, and other evasions of that eternally withheld “acknowledgment” of racism. Though it is presented as a form of pride, this studiously joyless way of taking in films and television is actually a lack of self-sufficiency and independence of mind. In that way, black pundits’ reflexively hostile take on The Help is a more articulate testament to the depredations of racism than anything in the movie itself. LET’S REVIEW THE PLOT of this supposedly so benighted piece of work. Emma Stone’s Skeeter, fresh from college and seeking a writing career in contrast to her housewife friends, compiles an oral history book from her Mississippi town’s black maids, starting with one friend’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis). Despite her employer’s pitiless treatment, including restricting her to a separate bathroom, Aibileen comes along only reluctantly, scarred by her son’s death from racist neglect after an accident and memories of violence inflicted after black people she knows even tried to vote. Even her fiery-tempered friend Minny comes along only with trepidation, meanwhile getting fired from her job for an especially colorful act of insubordination. Local NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers’ assassination, and a more local injustice sparked by Hilly Holbrook, an especially bigoted queen-bee friend of Skeeter’s, spur 31 more maids to come forward for the book. It’s a hit. It gets Skeeter a New York writing job she reluctantly leaves home to take, but leaves Aibileen jobless for contributing to it. Walking away from the employer’s house for the last time, she feels a certain freedom, but she has no job, and also despairs at abruptly leaving the white child who thought of her as her real mother. This is a “feel-good movie for a cowardly nation”? How could it be that this film, hardly The Sorrow and the Pity but honest and thoroughly affecting, is being treated like a remake of Imitation of Life? To view entire article, please click on the following link: http://www.tnr.com/article/film/93779/the-help-black-racism?page=0,0