For Your Consideration: The Help Is Heritage Not Defined By Hate
Every weekday from now until the Oscar ceremony we'll be running a For Your Consideration piece on behalf of every Best Picture nominee, arguing why it deserves its nomination or even a win, arguing why it's important, or even pointing out why it doesn't belong at the Oscars at all. Kicking things off is Katey with a personal argument on behalf of The Help.
When I was in high school, there was a fierce debate across my entire state about the Confederate flag, which had sat atop the South Carolina statehouse since the 60s. You might remember this-- it made national headlines, and resulted in the state finally being forced to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. day as a state holiday, and yes, remove the Confederate battle flag from on top of the state's most prominent building. 12 years later the debate seems insane, but at the time the flag's defenders commonly made the argument "It's heritage, not hate"-- meaning that the flag represented the state's history, not a pride in the antebellum era of the South, or a nostalgia for the days of slavery.
I didn't agree with them now or then-- the fact that the Confederate flag was put up there as a reaction to the Civil Rights Act says a lot-- but I thought about that argument often in the wake of The Help, which is by far the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee and the 13th-biggest movie of 2011. The movie got immediate pushback from The Association of Black Women Historians and nearly everyone else who wanted the flashy headline "Is The Help racist?" Even as moviegoers everywhere flocked to it, plenty of critics decided to write it off as yet another story about white people saving black people, ending Jim Crow, and making sure racism never happened again anywhere, ever.
There are plenty of complaints to be made about The Help-- it is a rambling, imperfect movie, relying a little too much on crass humor and hanging on to a few too many subplots from the book that never take hold in the film. But the movie makes a concerted effort to improve on the book, de-emphasizing the role of Skeeter, the privileged white girl who decides to take down the stories of the black maids who work in her Mississippi town, and expanding the roles of Minny and Aibileen, two of the maids Skeeter interviews. The Association of Black Women Historians seem to suggest that, by including Skeeter's story and others that take place in the white world of Jackson, Mississippi, it trivializes the hardships experienced by black domestic workers at the time. But it's the intersection of those worlds-- Minny and Aibileen's difficult and frequently dark one, Skeeter's overprivileged and stultifying one-- that makes The Help special. It's not about a white woman "rescuing" black women, but what those black women had to say when given the chance, and how they bridged a racial divide that, in the Jim Crow South, seemed impenetrable.
That divide felt very familiar to me, even growing up 30 years after the Jim Crow era. True, it's the white world of The Help that rings true to me, the ambrosia served at card game gatherings, the tricks for making fried chicken, the society ball where a minor faux pas can become a catastrophe. But plenty of white children in the South are still raised in part by black nannies or housekeepers, myself included, and when The Help explored that middle ground between otherwise divided races, I felt a pang of recognition seeing something that I'd never seen spoken out loud before. Talking to my mother, who clearly remembers a black woman in uniform working in her childhood home, we recognized so many other things, from the well-dressed polite society women who will whisper terribly racist things when nobody is looking to that odd, fraught relationship where a white woman might spend the entire day at home with a black woman she knows better than her own husband, but still never regard her as an equal.
The truth that The Help explores doesn't just come from director Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett, both of whom know Mississippi intimately. The justly celebrated cast brings out so much of this, and yes, including the actresses criticized by others as playing caricatures. Those who think Bryce Dallas Howard's villainous Hilly Holbrook is over the top or a caricature have clearly never spent time with high-society Southern women, who harbor outdated beliefs that stretch back to the antebellum period or even earlier. Those who think Octavia Spencer's portrayal of the sharp-tongued Minny skews too closely to the stock Hollywood "Mammy" character clearly aren't paying attention to what Spencer does with the role, giving Minny a dignity and a powerful presence that she struggles to hang on to in a world that constantly pushes her back down. Those who have a single bad thing to say about Viola Davis in the movie are clearly blind-- she's spectacular in it through and through.
"It's heritage, not hate." That argument doesn't really apply to The Help, which few can argue as actual hate speech, but I come back to it again in the movie's defense, trying to explain how you can be nostalgic for a period of history that's ugly and unflattering, how the intersection of white and black lives can be both fraught and sometimes terrible, but also more complicated than is easy to remember. It's far from a definitive statement on Civil Rights, but The Help dares to explore that tiny intersection of disparate lives in occasionally clumsy ways, but undeniably powerful ones as well. It's a polished Hollywood film about a complicated, sometimes terrible history-- but it's a real and moving investigation of a heritage that comes entwined with hate but is not defined by it.
For more arguments for and against this year's Oscar nominees, go right HERE.
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