I can only imagine the emotional roller coaster Viola Davis must have experienced when her agent called to say she’d been offered a juicy part in “The Help,” DreamWorks’ adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel. Even though parts for African American women are extremely few and far between, she would be costarring in the movie, enjoying more time on screen than she’d ever had in a major studio film.
Of course, there was an uncomfortable reality: She would be playing a part that many African Americans see as a cobwebby stereotype — Aibileen, a maid in 1960s Mississippi who cleans house for and raises the children of white segregationists, tots who beam at her and exclaim, “You’re my real mama, Aibi!”
“The Help” centers on Skeeter, an aspiring white writer who returns from Ole Miss to her hometown, Jackson, Miss., after graduation. Put off by her childhood friends’ racism and unsettled by the disappearance of her beloved childhood house servant, she seizes on the idea of writing about Jackson from the perspective of Aibileen and the city’s other black maids. The film is a hit, having earned $35.4 million in its first five days. The CinemaScore tracking service said opening-night audiences gave it an A-plus, and it has a respectable 73 fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
But its story, like so many Hollywood films about the civil rights era, puts a white person at the forefront of the struggle against Southern racism. This has created a big split in the African American community. DreamWorks points to endorsements from civil rights icons like Andrew Young and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers and onetime NAACP chairman, who introduced the film at an NAACP convention last month. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have urged fans to see the film. The studio says the film earned just as high a score at an all-black test screening in Chicago as it did with mixed audiences.
But if white movie critics have been all over the map about the movie — my colleague Betsy Sharkey called it “heartwarming,” while the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern said it “strengthens stereotypes it purports to shatter” — African American reviewers have been giving the film a thumbs-down. The Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy, the New York Press’ Armond White and the Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris all weighed in with largely negative reviews, with Morris saying “the movie is too pious for farce and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time.”
Melissa Harris-Perry, a black Tulane political science professor, called the film “deeply troubling,” complaining that instead of focusing on the lives of the black women, the film ends up being a coming-of-age story about Skeeter. “The fact is that the African American women — the domestic workers — become props for her.” Perry actually tweeted from a movie theater on opening day, writing at one point: “Thank God plucky white girls could give black women the courage to resist exploitation!”
I too found the movie deeply troubling. It asks us to believe that black maids in brutally repressive 1960s Mississippi could wage a battle against racism with only the tiniest of consequences. One maid brazenly reveals an act of revenge against her employer yet survives unscathed, when such a deed would have surely had dire repercussions at a time when civil rights workers, even white ones, were being beaten and murdered.
The film also never gets around to answering a pivotal question: How did these adorable little “chillen,” shown so much love by their black nannies, end up becoming virulent racists?
What is even more bothersome is that “The Help” presents today’s moviegoers with a distorted view of what the civil rights struggle was really like in 1960s Mississippi. It’s all too much of a white liberal fantasy, with one idealistic young Southerner inspiring the town’s black underclass to rebel against their oppressors. In reality, the movement was led by African Americans, from charismatic organizers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to idealistic black college students and accidental heroes like Rosa Parks.
Of course, the movement had white supporters, many of whom risked their lives registering voters and participating in marches, but the push for change was often a lonely African American crusade. Perhaps that’s why it’s so galling to see Hollywood make so many films over the years, from “Mississippi Burning” to “The Long Walk Home” to “Ghosts of Mississippi,” that put white heroes at the center of their story. (Two influential directors, Lee Daniels (“Precious”) and Paul Greengrass (“Bourne Supremacy”), have seen financing evaporate for films about King.)
In fact, Hollywood has an aversion to almost any dramas of black struggle that aren’t set safely in the past. It’s hardly a coincidence that two of the most high-profile projects with an African American story line that are heading into production are set in the slave era: Quentin Tarantino is making a slavery revenge thriller with Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio called “Django Unchained,” and Brad Pitt is producing “Twelve Years a Slave,” about a free black man sent back into slavery.
Studios loathe taking commercial risks. And even in an era of a black presidency, a serious modern-day film about black and white relations would hardly be a hot box-office prospect. But something else is at work. As a number of black filmmakers have confided to me in recent years, it is especially hard to find any enthusiastic support for a modern-day racial drama when you are pitching your idea to a room full of white people.
There are ridiculously few black production executives in Hollywood, none of whom have anything resembling greenlight power. DreamWorks, for example, does not have a black production executive, though it is the only major studio to have an African American marketing head. So while Hollywood has an abundance of white liberals, it is an insular world, full of executives who have little firsthand understanding of the black experience.
Perhaps that’s why “The Help,” despite its earnest, colorblind intentions, feels like such a naive piece of feel-good storytelling. I bet plenty of people will be beating the drum for Davis’ performance, and rightly so. It would be terrific to see her win an Oscar for her part, just as Hattie McDaniel did more than 70 years ago for her role as a black maid called Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” In Hollywood, I guess that’s what they call progress.