The Realities of ‘The Help’

“The Help” is a pretty good movie, but it’s time for Hollywood to start making movies about people of color, by people of color, writes Daniella Gibbs Leger.

Cast member Viola Davis arrives at the premiere of
Cast member Viola Davis arrives at the premiere of "The Help" in Beverly Hills, California, Tuesday, August 9, 2011. (AP/Matt Sayles)

A journalist friend of mine recently wrote on her Facebook page that she was sick of “non-film critics opining on ‘The Help.’” Stick to covering politics or the economy, and leave the film critiquing to those who do it for a living. But this movie, and the book it’s based on, has struck such a nerve with people, and the debate about everything from accuracy and dialogue to whitewashing has been raging for months. So, I figured I’d add my two cents.

A disclaimer—I have not read the book; I will probably do so in a few weeks. But I have read multiple reviews and critiques, both good and bad, so I have a strong sense of the controversy surrounding the film. For the uninitiated, "The Help" tells the story of a young white woman from Jackson, Mississippi who, in the 1960s, convinces black maids to tell the story of what it’s like to be a domestic worker in the segregated South, at great risk to themselves.

My overall thoughts are that "The Help" is not as bad as some people are saying and it’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s a pretty good movie. My husband and I were discussing the movie after we saw it and in his review, he said a couple things that stuck with me. He said that first of all, this was a Hollywood movie and not a documentary. Folks expecting complete historical accuracy should look someplace else.

Second, the target audience wasn’t necessarily me—it was a white audience. I’m sure folks will quibble with that, but I think this makes sense. Movies dealing with our nation’s troubled racial past are sometimes told in a powerful, yet often watered down way. Studios are all about making money, and people don’t necessarily want to spend money getting hit over the head with a disturbing image of our past. We want to walk out of the theatre feeling good about ourselves, or in the case of “The Help,” happy that we don’t live in that time anymore.

Another area of contention was that once again in a Hollywood movie, a white person “comes to the rescue” of African Americans. I can see why people would think that after seeing this movie. After all, Aibileen and Minny—the two maids at the center of the movie—don’t recognize their true inner strength until white budding author Skeeter comes along to pull it out of them. But if you look back at the Civil Rights era, there were white people who fought alongside African Americans for equal rights, and not every single white person in the South was a racist. So while I get the overall point some were making, I do not think it’s fair to pull out Skeeter and Celia’s roles as anomalies.

As I watched the movie and as I write this, however, it is hard not to do so in the context of the current state of Hollywood filmmaking. As one friend asked me, where are our stories, outside of Tyler Perry (because, surprise, lots of people do not like his films)? Every other year or so we get a “Precious” or “Jumping the Broom”—a movie written by African Americans about African Americans that isn’t just a slapstick comedy (full disclosure: my fabulous sister co-wrote Jumping the Broom). But any screenwriter/filmmaker would tell you that it is extremely hard to get a movie made these days. And if you happen to be a person of color, it is next to impossible.

And I think that was part of the reason you heard many critics wondering whether the book would have been made into a movie if a nonwhite person wrote it. Maybe it would have been. But looking at the industry’s past track record, I’m going to say probably not. Aside from “Malcolm X,” which came out almost 20 years ago, why is it that every major studio picture about the civil rights era seems to be focused on the white protagonist?

Perhaps that goes back to my husband’s point about the perceived audience for these movies. Even going way back in U.S. history to “Amistad,” that movie was more about the white lawyer Roger Baldwin than the African at the center of the drama, Cinqué. I cannot in good faith write about this singular movie without putting it against the backdrop that is modern day Hollywood and looking at what movies get made and what stories get told. In that sense, I can side with the frustration that is out there around “The Help.”

So what is my overall takeaway? I’m not firmly in either “Help” camp. I thought the acting was superb all around, Viola Davis will probably secure her second Oscar nod, Octavia Spencer needs to be in more movies, and I’d REALLY like to see another major motion picture on the Civil Rights era that is told from the African American point of view. I think it’s about time for that to happen.

Daniella Gibbs Leger is Vice President for New American Communities Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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Daniella Gibbs Léger

Executive Vice President, Communications and Strategy