The Harm in “The Help”

03 Feb

It’s been a good year for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Both Davis and Spencer toiled through bit roles and pieces in some of Hollywood’s biggest movies over the years but never quite got the credit or shine either actress was due. This especially holds true for Viola Davis, an exceptional talent who always managed to make minimal roles memorable (you might not have noticed her turn as a lawyer on certain episodes of the show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit back when it was still relevant because Stabler was on there or as the fed-up mayor of Los Angeles in the Jamie Foxx-Gerard Butler flick Law Abiding Citizen). Spencer, on the other hand, was most known for playing comic relief roles. She technically still is.

2011 was crucial for both of them, however, as it propelled both actresses into the spotlight through the motion picture adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s surprising best-selling book, The Help. Now, I admit, I haven’t yet had a chance to read the novel in full yet, so I hesitated about writing this blog until I did that. But the more I wait, the more Davis, Spencer, and The Help itself continue to garner accolades, to be rewarded and awarded… and I’m not entirely sure how to feel about that. 

My qualm is not with the actresses themselves. Every major character in The Help does a phenomenal job. Bryce Dallas Howard does a complete 360 from her usual passive roles. You’d be hard-pressed to believe that the timid girl from those M. Night Shyamalan disappointments The Village and, to a lesser extent, Lady in The Water, could actually embody the role of someone you truly hate because she harbors a prejudice that is moreso motivated by jealousy than ignorance. Yet Dallas Howard does exactly that as Hilly Holbrook from the minute the movie first begins. I’ll admit I had my angry Black man moment when Hilly first proposed the “separate bathrooms” idea. Emma Stone, who has continued to show her acting chops and impressive diversity with each ensuing film following Superbad, is also incredible as Skeeter Phelan, a woman who is unconsciously moreso motivated to tell Aibileen and Minny’s stories because she never got a chance to finish her own personal story with her family’s former maid.

Abby... these white people over there laughing just a little too hard for me!

Davis is riveting as Aibileen. She absolutely lives up to the character’s “just strong enough to make it” persona, dealing with disrespect from her white female employers and having to project the love she was never fully able to give her son onto kids who don’t entirely appreciate her as their literal “mother figure” when their own lazy mothers slack in their parental duties. It may be missed on many in the younger generation, but it took a lot of swallowing pride and strength to be able to go to work at a place where you weren’t really wanted, where people had the audacity to tell you take a shit elsewhere, yet relied upon you to change their baby’s shitty diaper that had no doubt been accumulating waste from the start of the day on.

By now, you must be asking, “But, Mr. Gatsby… where are the so-called qualms? You’ve praised the movie more than the critics!” Well, here’s the thing – two things, actually – where The Help may harm.

First, I loathe with a passion movies that have what I’ve come to call “the great white savior” character. Basically, this involves the introduction of a white character to people from underrepresented backgrounds (Black, Latino, Asian-American, etc.) in a bleak or disadvantaged situation. The white character becomes so sympathetic that they “do something” in an effort to inspire or encourage the minority characters to take action or “believe in themselves.” The minority character(s) initially refuses, for a reason that the viewer might take as selfish (but which, in actuality, may just be the character being safe; in the case of The Help, Aibileen and Minny initially do not want to help Skeeter with her book because state laws would allow for either of them to be Strange Fruit arrested for “defamation” of their employers, nor does the state allow Blacks to read books period). After a critical tragedy or turning point, however, the minority character takes the white character up on their offer and “progress is made.” Once the “progress is made,” one of two things happens: the great white savior is given an opportunity to go elsewhere and intends to stay in the community (having developed real friendships with the minority characters), but the minority characters insist that they’ll be okay if the savior goes riding off into the sunset to change someone else’s world; or the minority characters, feeling empowered by the great white savior, are “sent off” to be something big and great.

"My sisters! I am here to save you because you can't save yourselves! Isn't that awesome?!"

The problem here is that Skeeter highkey gets the credit for “changing the world.” To Skeeter’s credit – as is often the case with the “great white savior” – she does have a sympathetic background, and it is revealed that she legitimately cared for her family’s former domestic worker (Cicely Tyson in her usual former slave wise old woman role) dearly. Skeeter even goes far as to say their maid “practically raised me” at one point later on in the film. But I worry that the impression is given that, without Skeeter, the Black maids would still be in the plight they’re in. Technically, at the end of the movie, nothing has REALLY changed. Minny is still doing domestic work for a white family (and actually takes it as a compliment when she’s told “we don’t want you to leave. We want you to work for us for many years to come.” *insert the blankest of blank stares*) Skeeter leaves, even though she COULD stay and continue to use her writing to impact the community; but she’s certainly encouraged to go off and follow her dreams by Aibileen and Minny. And the movie ends with Aibileen being fired from her job as a domestic worker, walking off in a hopeful mindstate that is still slightly bleak… because I mean, DOES Aibileen have other options other than going BACK to domestic work?

In short, I worry that The Help winning Best Picture at The Oscars will reinforce the “great white savior” idea and ultimately absolve white people from feeling any guilt whatsoever about Black domestic workers, some of whom worked for white families for generations. *but hey, that’s all in the past!*

Secondly, historically Oscar has not always been kind in terms of rewarding African-Americans who play, shall we say, “positive” roles; they get nominated but never win unless the role has some kind of negative connotation. The last few African-American roles that have won Oscars include a physically and mentally abusive mother (Mo’Nique, Precious), murderous men on a power trip (Denzel Washington, Training Day, and Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland), a woman whose biggest contribution to the plot is a sex scene with a racist white man (Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball), and a musician whose womanizing and drug habit slightly eclipsed his contributions to music in the film’s plot (Jamie Foxx, Ray).


The irony is not lost on me, amongst others, that should Viola Davis win Best Actress, as deserving as she may be, it will be damn near 1939 all over again, when Hattie McDaniel was awarded an Oscar for playing the doting Mammy to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Perhaps it’ll just be an unfortunate coincidence, but it will absolutely be a shame Davis’s talent wasn’t noticed until she played a maid. And, yes, I take offense a lot to the movie’s tagline, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” The Help itself is nominated for Best Picture, too. *sigh* Needless to say, I definitely don’t want it to win because then twitter is going to annoy me with all these “post-racial America is real/racism is dead now!” comments.

For all its potential implications, The Help was an incredible watch. I certainly recommend it. And maybe, just maybe my paranoia is unfounded. Surely we can always take solace in the fact that Terrence Howard didn’t win Best Actor for playing rapper-pimp DJay in Hustle & Flow, right?


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2 responses to “The Harm in “The Help”

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