Last week I saw The Help. Before the movie even started I noticed something – the audience in the full theater was almost exclusively white, a total reversal of my experience last year when I saw For Colored Girls at a theater a few miles away. That time I was the only white person there. So I wondered, what is it about this movie that draws white people, but not African Americans? Was it the different location, or is there some other reason that The Help caters to white audiences?
Maybe you’re aware that the blogosphere has been in analysis-overdrive about this topic. One of the problems folks have with the novel/movie is that, like so many other stories that explore racial relations, The Help puts a white person in the role of savior, and depicts African Americans as unable to help themselves. I get that. It was all over The Blind Side, a movie in which almost every African American character was a criminal, and which downplayed the self-serving motivations of the Christian school that offered Michael Oher a chance. (Sure, he couldn’t read, but he could play football! What about the kids who can’t do either? Where are the white saviors then?)
Anyway, even though the movie version of The Help failed to deeply explore how African American resistance (and not white altruism) resulted in the great gains of the Civil Rights Movement, one might argue that the African American maids in The Help did have a voice and used it at great risk to themselves and their families, and that white allies, though not central in the struggle for racial equality, have always been important. My concern about The Help isn’t about the movie itself. The Help depicts racism during a particular time and place, and apart from a few frustratingly one-dimensional characters, depicts it fairly well. My problem is that it lets us white people off the hook in a few different ways. First, class is an issue. How many of us grew up with maids of any color? Likely not many. Second, there’s geography. If you’re from the North (like I am), it’s easy to blame the South for our country’s racist past. But I think most problematic is that whites watching a movie like The Help can easily think, wow, that’s awful! Things were terrible back then. I’m so glad it’s not like that any more! And the very same people who are appalled at the racism of the past might not be equally appalled at how racism manifests itself in the present. If fact, they might deny that racism still exists. It’s easy to sit in a comfy movie theater and pass judgment on those malicious racists of the past. It’s easy to feel compassion for the African Americans who suffered in this blatantly racist society. We might even shed a tear. It’s much harder to recognize how our own present day white privilege, whether we know it or not, works in our favor to perpetuate systems that keep racial inequity alive and well.
Don’t get me wrong. Books and movies like The Help, as depictions of American history, serve an important purpose, but only if we realize that, as Carter Godwin Woodson said back in 1933, “the conditions of today have been determined by what has taken place in the past.”* The racial segregation and oppression that we see in The Help was not a purely southern phenomenon, and did not disappear with the Civil Rights Movement. The racist policies of the past are directly related to the present, and the legacy of racism continues in our country in a myriad of ways. Our educational system is one of them. Go see The Help. It’s a good movie. Get angry. Cry if you want to (I did). But don’t for a minute think it lets us off the hook.
P.S. Here's a statement from The Association of Black Women Historians regarding The Help. They point out the way that the story reinforces stereotypes and distorts both the history of the time and the experience of the African American domestic workers it tries to depict. Perhaps this helps explain why it's the white audiences that are flocking to the theater.
*The Mis-Education of the Negro, p. 13.