John McWhorter offers a contrarian take on the civil rights era drama The Help, arguing that its critics are overreacting. Not content simply to make the case that the film is compelling, he goes onto argue that its critics are actually racist:
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?
We must dismiss out of hand a discomfort with this sad period being “packaged” by Hollywood at all. The Help certainly includes swelling strings on the soundtrack, what Nelson George terms its “candy-coated cinematography,” and neatly intertwining stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Some might prefer a visually peculiar, spiritually ambiguous, narratively desultory art-house opus. But that film would be seen by only a few, which would contravene the imperative that America as a whole needs to see it to learn about its racist past.
Consider for a moment the opposite case: Say that Hollywood, with its fundamentally commercial orientation, decided not to touch topics as sensitive as the Civil Rights story. The very same critics would no doubt despair that, “Hollywood doesn’t want to address America’s racist past.” The critics who inveigh against The Help for its mass market appeal are being duplicitous. Long ago, black film and television historian Donald Bogle counseled that “black films can liberate audiences from illusions, black and white, and in so freeing can give all of us vision and truth.” That’s a very debatable proposition—but, in any case, it would require that this “responsibility” be exercised within realistic commercial parameters. To be liberated, the audience has to show up.
First of all, Imitation of Life is a great film. Second, while McWhorter's argument about commercial viability is well-taken, it undermines his later argument that in fact no one's in denial about racism and that the familiar structure of the film doesn't reflect a larger trend about films on the civil rights era maximizing the heroism of their white characters. But I also bristle at the allegation that white people by definition cannot tell black people's stories in a meaningful or effective way, and people making this argument either haven't seen The Wire or don't know it was written by a white guy named David Simon.
Now I haven't seen The Help, but I do get the sense that part of the reaction to it is less about the quality of the movie itself than the larger cultural context. What "commercial viability" means here is that, inevitably, successful films in this genre have to have a white hero to anchor the story around. The Help would not be so infuriating to its critics in a world where Hollywood showed more interest in telling stories about black people in which they are not vehicles of white redemption, where actresses of Viola Davis' caliber aren't competing with each other for a scant number of roles for black women. This isn't so much about "an implacable pique at white America for never quite “owning” its racism" as it is a frustration that black people's stories are a means to white self-congratulation.
I suspect none of this would matter if Hollywood were interested enough in telling black people's stories that there were more than one or two major studio releases a year with majority black casts. The problem isn't so much that The Help is a bad movie--from what I hear it's a pretty good one--but that it's the only kind of story being told. But that in and of itself undermines McWhorter's point--after all, if white people had "come to terms" with racism, you wouldn't need benevolent white protagonists to anchor movies about black people for them to be commercially successful. That comes from the same frustrating dynamic as the geek uproar over Blatino Spider-Man: White audiences still have difficulty relating to black characters because they're black. I don't know if the resilience of this barrier reflects "cowardice," but it does say something about the lines we draw internally, if not publicly.