Final thoughts on “The Help.”

The Help‘s female antagonists were depicted cruelly and stereotypically. Allegorical denial of their humanity does a disservice to these perpetrators of racial injustice. Oddly enough, it also does a disservice to their victims.

I finally saw The Help. As it happens, I watched it in a theater with a nearly 100% African-American audience, many of whom clapped enthusiastically at the end. I found it unavoidably moving, too. As far as I can tell, the most vehement political criticism of this film comes from people who haven’t seen it. This is not another film in which a pretty and privileged white woman rescues voiceless and powerless African-American women. The naïve young protagonist isn’t in a position to rescue anybody. None of the film’s characters believes anything different.

The most pronounced irony is that The Help‘s main African-American characters were individually realized. Meanwhile, the film’s white characters–except for the lead and one small child–were mainly crude caricatures. Indeed most of the young white women were depicted in fairly monstrous terms. (Hollywood homogenization goes beyond dialogue. The Help‘s black women reflected a realistic human diversity of shapes and sizes. Almost all the white women were played by alluring movie stars.)

The Help‘s female antagonists were depicted cruelly, stereotypically. Such allegorical denial of their humanity does a disservice to these perpetrators of racial injustice. Oddly enough, it does a disservice to their victims, too. It fails to engage the more nuanced reality of imperfect, sometimes sympathetic human beings who benefitted from the caste and class system around them, and who thus generally found a way to make their uneasy peace with it. In real life, even in 1963 Mississippi, many whites harbored complicated views regarding what they might have called race relations. They held especially complicated views towards the particular African-Americans who raised them and their children, who cared for their elderly parents, with whom they maintained intimate ties, often over many years.

Segregation, even in Mississippi’s vicious Apartheid form, was practiced by real human beings whose lives were only partly defined by the injustices that jump out at us. In the light of history, one must conclude that the great majority of white Mississipians perpetrated a monstrous crime. Of course, they didn’t see things this way. People seldom do.

We can’t recognize such evil until we view it in recognizable human form, practiced by basically decent, though weak and unimaginative people much like ourselves. The southern belles depicted in this film had the bad moral luck to live in that particular state and that particular time. Would we have done better? That’s the unasked question in this worthy and moving, but ultimately complacent film.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

11 thoughts on “Final thoughts on “The Help.””

  1. I am a white woman, but I didn’t grow up in the South. Still, the very question in my mind as I left the theater was … would I have done better? Exactly how much am I a product of my time and class (middle class upbringing, in my case)? Whatever its merits or lack thereof, THE HELP clearly is making a lot of people uncomfortable. I disagree with you, but I think you are brave to express the point of view you hold.

  2. Flannery O’Connor is the writer you want if you are looking for nuance and for a sense of the tragic element in southern race relations mid-century. Start with “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and proceed from there. Thomas Merton likened her to Sophocles; her characters are caught up in circumstances not of their own making, but in which they participate with self-destructive consequences.

  3. I haven’t seen it or read the book. But my thought is that maybe, if you tell a story largely from the point of view of the underclass, it doesn’t really matter so much what individual members of the overclass are like? Or to put that another way, all whites look alike?

  4. …would I have done better?

    Probably not. The rule of thumb I see see scientists reference is that we (our personalities) are about 50% nurture and 50% nature. But for Southerners, they have the added cultural burden of losing the Civil War. That’s contaminated their culture to this day and probably kicks that 50% more towards 60%. Losing a war is a huge human thing. It is an epigenetic scar that gets passed from insolent fathers to pliant children. I’m convinced the region will never get over the defeat. The dilution of their rage from generation to generation is negligible. And the cultural baggage is an eternal drag on the country.

    And because of the nature of the Constitution, America can’t rise above the social inertia of its southern common denominator. We can’t drag our southern brothers into the 21st century. Protesters to all progress, they’ve gone limp to all politics. To wit: Southerners were willing to allow the country to default because they don’t care about the country as a whole. Many were giddy at the prospects of blowing the country up financially. Thus the US is doomed to be no better than the losers of the Civil War will allow it to be. That might have worked for a world where Asian and India were asleep. Going forward? The Southerner has shown he doesn’t even want to help his countryman in times of hurricanes. To say that doesn’t “bode well” is a vast understatement.

  5. if you tell a story largely from the point of view of the underclass, it doesn’t really matter so much what individual members of the overclass are like? Or to put that another way, all whites look alike?

    A very fine point indeed. From the perspective of the underclass you can’t tell a smiling time bomb from a frowning time bomb.
    I’ve often wonder if those three Mississippi civil rights workers had any idea that the deputy that put them in jail was helping to plot their murders?

    Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were all denied telephone calls during their time at the jail. COFO workers made attempts to find the three men, but when they called the Neshoba County jail, the secretary followed her instructions to lie and told the workers the three young men were not there. During the hours they were held incommunicado in jail, Price notified his Klan associates who assembled and planned how to kill the three civil rights workers.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_civil_rights_workers_murders

  6. Great cliches, Koreyel. It surely is good to live here in California where all the politicians are reasonable and there is no racism.

  7. @koreyel

    If only we could just blame the South for our current political woes. Sadly I fail to see evidence supporting that supposition.

  8. @Caroline

    Why would you think Southern Man lives just in South?
    Sure he is sourced to the South, maintained by the culture of the South, but he has radiated out.
    I suspect you can find the Stars and Bars decorating trailer walls in all 50 states.

  9. Harold’s comments, while very interesting, don’t speak very directly to whether this is a good movie or not, and not having seen it yet, I have no opinion on that subject. I would say that his description of the characterizations (stereotyped white characters and individualized black characters) could equally apply to Mandingo, arguably one of the worst movies ever made.

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