The poster satirizing The Help on the website theshiznit.co.uk effectively sums up my reasons for not wanting to read this book or watch the movie: “White people solve racism. You’re welcome, black people.” I wasn’t interested in watching yet another story about people of color told by and through a white person (incidentally, this is why Slumdog Millionaire and even Red Tails, for all its weaknesses, are unusual – they don’t use a white character to draw mainstream audiences in). So my initial reaction when I got my SAG awards screener DVD for The Help was, “Ugh, I guess I need to watch it now so I can vote responsibly.” Viola Davis convinced me, too. In interviews she is clear-eyed about people’s possible objections to the film but also very proud of her own and her co-stars’ performances in the film. So I figured I can honor the work she, Octavia Spencer, and Aunjanue Ellis did by watching the film, even if I have qualms about it.
Overall, The Help is better than I expected it to be. The characters are fairly-well fleshed out, not just one-dimensional mouthpieces for societal/political pronouncements. I don’t really understand what makes Skeeter suited to hear and share the maids’ stories, their experiences of daily social discrimination and institutional racism – is it just because Skeeter has curly hair and wears ugly shoes and doesn’t fit the conventional expectations of femininity in her community? Is the film really drawing a parallel between Skeeter’s “outsider” status and the marginalization of the women of color she’s interviewing?
I also can’t figure out why we’re supposed think Skeeter is so brave. Aibileen, Minny, and Yula Mae are risking their jobs and their lives by talking to her, but what exactly is Skeeter risking? The film points out that it’s illegal in Mississippi to advocate for racial equality, but is she really doing that in her book? My impression is that her book chronicles the women’s personal experiences but doesn’t necessarily call for systemic changes to end racial inequality. Perhaps the novel has more details about Skeeter’s book, but the film is vague enough that its repeated claims of Skeeter’s bravery annoyed me.
I also think the film, as a period piece, allows us to separate ourselves from the reality of racism today, as though it’s simply an artifact of the past. While the civil rights struggle addressed overt systemic racism, issues of class, race, and privilege continue to shape our lives and society. While segregation laws may not be on the books, how different would a movie about present-day domestic workers really be from The Help?