When I wandered into a screening of The Help yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder, was it going to be one of those movies?
You know the kind I mean. Certainly, the movie industry has come a long way since that old yarn The Birth of a Nation, but it seems that movies about blacks and whites interacting (as opposed to movies where there are black and white actors and no big deal is made out their racial differences ) often end up falling into one of two categories.
First, there’s the type that feature what Spike Lee referred to as the “super duper magical negro” and which, because using the word negro makes every politically correct bone in my body uncomfortable, I will awkwardly refer to as the “super duper magical African American friend.” The super duper magical African American friend seems like she’s been around since Mammy was ambling through the ruins of Tara. The character exists almost solely to help the white protagonist of the film and offer wise advise through metaphors. Think, say of The Legend of Bagger Vance where Will Smith’s character is left advising the golfer Matt Damon through a series of folksy metaphors like “it’s all in how you swing at it!” to which a viewer might reply, “well, of course it is, you dolt, you’re on a golf course.” But that seems like enough to get Matt Damon’s love life back in check. God knows where these characters come from or where they go once they solve the pale people’s problems.
But perhaps that’s better than the white people doing the saving a la The Blind Side. Now, to be fair, I didn’t hate The Blind Side, in which Sandra Bullock’s character takes in a homeless black boy who becomes a football star. It’s hard to say you dislike a movie about “people being kind to someone in need.”
But on a second viewing, the fact that the boy only stares at Sandra Bullock and her family with wide eyed gratitude akin to Ferdinand the Bull – except for when he is tricked by the evil college recruiter and Sandra Bullock has to drive into the inner city and face down gang members to help get him back - (Yes. Really) did grate on me. As did the fact that the story only seemed to have a happy ending because the character was really good at football. If he hadn’t been - well, the fact that Sandra Bullock tells one of the coaches who comes to visit him that he should be taken to a Disney movie, and that he’s easily terrified by the suggestion that there might be bodies under a football field, really doesn’t bode so well for him. The character doesn’t seem to experience personal growth so much as an increased adoration for his white family.
So where does The Help fall on the spectrum? The film (based on Kathrynn Stockett’s novel) is about a white writer, Skeeter, (Emma Stone) working on a book about what it’s like to be a black maid in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960′s. She’s aided by two maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer). Taking that into account, it seems dangerously as though it might fall into either of the categories - either by making the movie too much about the virtue of the white writer or the wisdom of the black maids.
However, it largely manages to avoid doing so simply by indicating that the characters have lives entirely separate from one another. The black maids don’t exist simply to provide sage commentary – they actually have their own problems (children going to college, the death of Medgar Evers, abusive husbands) and you see them dealing with those problems. I’m hard pressed to think of even one scene in say, Gone With The Wind where it’s indicated that Mammy might have a personal life or feelings that don’t relate to the O’Hara family. Mercifully, that means that the African American’s stories in The Help meet with some conlusion as well, they don’t simply wander off wordlessly after Skeeter’s problems are solved (where did Bagger Vance go?). And Skeeter’s problems aren’t entirely solved – you could certainly say that working on the book left her with far more problems than she had at the begining of the movie.
Of course, it’s kind of sad to think that simply seeing black people in a room not talking about a white person or being magical represents an improvement, but it is nice to see a film where the black characters aren’t merely set up to be “help” for the white protagonists. The performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are also very good, even if the film loses a bit of the book’s nuance. The film will be out in theaters this Wednesday, and it’s worth checking out if only you can see whether or not I’m giving it entirely too much credit.