As #BlackLivesMatter protests swept the globe over the last couple of weeks, people were feeling the call for activism and doing some serious self-reflection on their own privilege, prejudice, and bias. People were also watching The Help on Netflix, which was the #1 most popular movie on the streaming service over the weekend. And folks, that ain’t it.
Indeed, the Oscar-winning 2011 film which itself was based on a book by Kathryn Stockett tells the story of two Black maids in 1963 Mississippi, the racism they’re forced to deal with every day as they work for white families, and the small victories they found along the way. But The Help is a particularly problematic kind of “Black” story in that it aims to let white people off the hook with white savior tropes while skirting some of the harsher and more violent truths of racism in the South. All in the name of moving towards a feel-good ending that doesn’t make people too uncomfortable. It’s #NotAllWhitePeople: The Movie.
There’s also the fact that The Help is not just a fictionalized story, it’s one concocted and told almost exclusively by white people. Stockett, the author of the source material, is white, and the film’s writer/director Tate Taylor is also white.
All of this has not just been pointed out by critics, but by some of the people involved in The Help, and now co-star Bryce Dallas Howard is adding her voice to those who find the film, uh, a little problematic.
Howard took to Facebook to acknowledge that while she’s grateful for the friendships she forged while making the movie, “we can all go further” in finding and watching films told by African-Americans. “Stories are a gateway to radical empathy and the greatest ones are catalysts for action” she notes, before offering suggestions of some films and TV shows based on real-life events that offer a more accurate portrait of race relations in America—including Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, both of which have been made available to watch for free.
I’ve heard that #TheHelp is the most viewed film on Netflix right now! I’m so grateful for the exquisite friendships…
Howard isn’t the only The Help cast member to speak out about the film’s shortcomings. Viola Davis, who scored an Oscar nomination for her leading role in the film, said in 2018 that while she treasures the experience making the film and the friendships she made on the movie, she regrets making it:
“I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard,” Davis said. “I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”
Indeed, time and again audiences will spring for comfort over truth, and Hollywood is eager to deliver it. A prime example is the 2018 Oscar race, in which Green Book—a “race relations” movie as told through the eyes of a white protagonist that ends on a “can’t we all just get along?” feel-good note—won Best Picture. The win in and of itself was baffling, but was also striking given that two films about the Black experience by Black filmmakers—Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther—were also nominated for Best Picture that year. Both of those films are uncomfortable and do not provide easy answers nor do they let people off the hook. And I think we’re seeing right now, through these protests, that discomfort is what enacts change. Comforting yourself with a fairy tale like The Help or Green Book is the pathway towards complacency, offering up a “things aren’t/weren’t that bad” sensibility in favor of the truth, which is that things are/were terrible and horrific and unjust.
Good on Howard to acknowledging that we can and should do better when finding art that reflects the Black experience in a more accurate and edifying manner. The films she lists are all great starting points to further understand the African-American experience.