THE HELP Juggernaut is about to cruise through International Cultural Waters!
The cover of Entertainment Weekly (August 12, 2012) features Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer from the upcoming film, The Help—based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. The feature article promotes the film in which two black women maids are encouraged (enabled) by a white woman writer to speak out for Civil Rights.The article does mention the fact that the success of the novel might have to do with an aggressive marketing campaign to readers of all colors that the vast majority of black woman authors have never gotten. However this inequity is not Kathryn Stockett’s fault!
Besides, The Help’s a good story!
Critics on the wire give The Help thumbs up and urge us to go see a film that takes on serious, touchy themes without getting “preachy.”
That’s code for: white people won’t have to feel guilty.
There’s still some small worry that black people might cringe.
The rest of the world can hopefully just sit back and enjoy a good screen story.
The premise of The Help grates on me (and on others—see Martha Southgate’s response) but I plan to attend the film. The performers are supposed to be phenomenal and how many blockbuster Hollywood features offer so many actresses a chance to fill the screen? Besides those mentioned above, there’s Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburger, and Aunjanue Ellis. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer proclaim that their characters are the most dimensional they have gotten to portray. Dark (and even plump!) black actresses don’t get much play in Hollywood so Davis and Spencer were, after initial skepticism, excited to sink their teeth into meaty roles. They get why folks might be suspicious, but plead for a chance to be seen.
I find their pleas incredibly painful.
The filmmakers have screened the film for black audiences and received much applause and also blessings from revered elders—like Andrew Young. The filmmakers don’t want a firestorm but a sweet box office swell.
If we—the audiences who want to see black actresses on screen but are troubled by the premise of The Help and the politics of Hollywood Blockbuster films and Mainstream Bestselling novels which still, in 2011 not 1963 or some other painful past, exclude black screenwriters, directors, actresses, and novelists from the kind of support and marketing that made The Help a juggernaut—if we don’t go to The Help—why the Hollywood machine won’t risk featuring black ladies again, probably for a long time. The systemic repercussions will be our fault, not the writer’s fault. I keep hearing this. If the film fails, if execs don’t greenlight films featuring black ladies after a disappointing showing for The Help, it’ll be because we—the skeptics—didn’t give this movie a chance.
The logic of this is brutal. We are blamed for systemic problems, but those capitalizing on them are just doing…well, good art. Who can blame them for that?
The premise of the film is the familiar “whites enable colored people to fight for freedom” myth. This storyline gets published or produce more than the colored people enabling each other story. Avatar and Mississippi Burning leap to mind. Good is subjective, of course. Still, it’s not so much a question of whether Avatar or The Help are good stories with complex characters well told, but what kind of good story is aggressively marketed? A story that doesn’t center on the intervention of a benevolent/repentant member of the privileged class helping the downtrodden to rise up is a less marketable “good” story. If the help help themselves out of the stinking mess, odds are against the story. The story might even be labeled preachy, angry. Mainstream audiences might feel guilt just watching the trailer!
That we get the same "good" story over and over again is no one’s fault! Certainly not the author of The Help who wrote her particular heart-rending version of it, nor the actresses who play their complex incarnations of the familiar. Who can blame the author for taking advantage of a system stacked in her favor and stacked against other writers? Who can blame the actresses for snapping up the opportunity? So few of us get any kind of opportunity!How many Blockbusters have more than one woman featured?
What do we want? What do we expect? A revolution? This is commercial literature and film for God’s sake. Would we rather see nothing at all?