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Criticisms of ‘The Help’, its Odd Disconnect with Class Politics

July 10, 2012
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Finally got around to watching ‘The Help’. And I am coalescing around the opinions I had already formed from hearing and reading about it when it came out. One of the best critiques and discussions that I heard came from Melissa-Harris Perry’s wonderful interview panel during Oscar week. I highly recommend clicking through that link and getting a sense of the problems with the film.

When ‘The Help’ won the Oscar nomination, I also saw Tavis Smiley’s interview with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. It’s here.

You can watch Viola Davis make a passionately felt, but strange argument that black people “don’t understand” the ways in which white people “humanize” black characters on film. In fact, Davis takes it several steps further. Black critics who are tired of black characters always being portrayed as a sociological pathology — are “destroying the Black Artist”.

I don’t really understand being a black actress — an artist — and holding these opinions in an industry as beholden to white supremacy as Hollywood.

After Tavis Smiley calls her out on her fully unreasonable rant by using the word “respectfully” many many times — Viola Davis goes on to make an excellent point about ‘The Help’ — Stop saying Viola Davis and Octavia Specer “just played the maid”. There is nothing wrong with playing the role of a domestic worker. Being a maid is not the same as playing a psychopathic cop or a gangster or a serial killer.

For the rest of the interview, Viola Davis essentially agrees with the criticisms that have been made of ‘The Help’, without implicating ‘The Help’ in any way.

It’s an easy argument to make that the reason ‘The Help’ is problematic is because it played on stereotypes. But that’s not the whole story, I am not even sure that’s the point. The larger issue for me was the other facets that was thoroughly and thoughtfully criticized by Perry’s interviews — mainly centering white narratives in a story about one of the most silenced and forgotten groups of people in history — black domestic workers.

It told a white woman’s story of self-discovery, self-redemption, bravery and triumph where black characters’ struggles were the vehicle for the essential narrative. White people as saviors, as the voices and the instigators of justice — requires a suspension of belief that I found difficult to maintain for most of the film.

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