While the Deep South can be known for ground breaking racial issues, the plots in certain movies might have even bigger, more relevant social issues.
“You is smart, you is kind, you is important.”
This quote is directly from director Tate Taylor’s movie The Help, personalized from the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. The Help follows one Caucasian, wealthy young woman Skeeter (portrayed by Emma Stone) and the connections and relationships she shares with several African American domestic workers or “babysitters” (portrayed by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer). Brave, tenacious Skeeter is different so she is slaving away on a book that will blow the lid off the suffering endured by black maids. Skeeter interviews the maids about their experiences of working as ‘the help’ in the racially charged 1960s of Jackson, Mississippi. Set against the backdrop of the civil-rights movement, the film aims to inform those within the audience who have previously given little or no thought to the hardships faced by the racially subjugated African-American population of the South during this time.
The film has been specifically marketed as a progressive tale of achievement over racial injustice, although I believe it more prominently embodies the racial ‘white savior’ genre that Hollywood vigorously reinforces with such movies like Grand Torino, The Blind Side, Blood Diamond, Avatar, Freedom Writers and even the hit musical Hairspray. These films portray how a white person becomes an important part into the lives of a minority, who is usually living in poverty, or depressed times. More than likely, the white character is portrayed as having a better life than the minority character.
Many critics have placed The Help in the category of “white savior” because of its “simplistic” approach to race relations and the South. “Sometimes there’s fiction that is truer than reality,” says Marcellus Blount, professor of English and African-American studies. “I don’t think that’s the case [with The Help].” Part of what’s missing, he says, is violence. “The Civil Rights era is depicted as largely peaceful for whites. Race is sanitized. I found it distressing because this moment is such a violent one in history.” The movie deals with violence sparingly and indirectly. The murder of Medgar Evers, a Jackson, Mississippi civil rights activist, is briefly addressed in one scene, and in another one of the maids is abused by her husband, who is kept off-screen. “He is silent, and we never get his story,” Blount says. “It’s as though all African-American men are abusive.”
Despite good intentions, the film still tells a small, sentimental story that glosses over the hard facts of the Civil Rights era. For Blount, the Help’s overarching “Hollywood narrative” is kinship, the ultimate bond formed between a white woman and a group of black women, a theme that eclipses the real issues of racism. The film does not tell the story of far-reaching social change—but rather the...