Thursday, January 12, 2017

White Guilt

Film: The Help
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Like it or not, The Help works in part because of white guilt. There’s not a good way around this. It’s the sort of movie that is designed to piss off white supremacists and to make liberal white people like it based specifically on the subject matter regardless of the quality of the movie itself. Well, as it happens, I am a liberal white person and in this case, the white guilt doesn’t work on me. That being the case, it’s a good thing that The Help is a damn fine movie in its own right.

This is a Civil Rights Era movie, and it takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, which means it’s not just going to be about the Civil Rights Era. Young Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) has just graduated from Ole Miss and returned home. She’s also secured herself a job at the local paper, taking over a weekly column concerning household hints. Skeeter’s goal is to write for a living, and she sees this as her foot in the door. While at her friend Elizabeth’s (Ahna O’Reilly) house, she asks if she might consult Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis).

Skeeter has something of an ulterior motive to this as well. She has been told by New York editor Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen) to write about something that concerns her, especially if it doesn’t seem to concern anyone else. Skeeter decides that what she’d like to write about is the maids in Jackson, all of whom are black and all of whom work for wealthy white families. It takes some doing to get Aibileen to agree to the process. The reasons for that are many: it’s illegal in Mississippi at the time to advocate for equal treatment of the races, it would destroy Skeeter’s reputation as well as the family reputation, and it would cost every maid in town her job with a guarantee of no prospects. Multiple times through the course of the film, maids are dismissed and accused of thievery when they have done nothing wrong.

There are a few other important characters here. The first is Minny (Octavia Spencer, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for this role), who is the definition of the sassy maid stereotype despite it being dangerous to talk back at this time. Minny is Aibileen’s best friend. She also has the misfortune to work for Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is set up in the film to be the main foil. She’s also the main reason I think that The Help is trading on white guilt. Hilly is the sort of person who is easy to hate. She’s blatantly racist, trying to draft legislation to insist on different bathrooms for the help in private homes, for instance. She’s also decided to shun and exclude Celia Rae Foote (Jessica Chastain), who she believes is white trash who married up.

Other characters of note are Hilly’s mother (Sissy Spacek), who is more than a touch dotty and Skeeter’s mother Charlotte (Allison Janney), who is coping with cancer and also trying to cope with the changing thoughts of her daughter and the local customs and beliefs.

There’s a lot to The Help, and like any movie that attempts to define a group of people in a particular place and time, there are a number of different emotional beats. We get both good and bad moments, moments of vindictive joy, terrible embarrassment, and true tragedy. Again, though, many of these beats, while not telegraphed, are about what you’d expect them to be from the story, time, and setting. It’s terrible, but not surprising when we see a maid accused of something she didn’t do and fired because of it. It’s uplifting, but expected when we discover that Celia Rae is actually a good person.

And that’s the issue I have with The Help. I know it’s manipulating me in a particular way, but the story and cast are good enough that it generally works. And don’t kid yourself—this is a master class in casting a film from top to bottom. Octavia Spencer is a national treasure, and this might be the best work Emma Stone has done. But even small roles are brilliantly cast as well—Davie Oyelowo as the local preacher and Cicely Tyson as the former maid for Skeeter’s family have small but critical roles. Viola Davis, who was nominated for this role, comes across as a woman of great strength and character. I like Viola Davis, but here, she's admirable more than likeable. And really, I’ve expressed my love of Allison Janney before, and I wish she’d do more films. Yes, there’s a change in her character by the end. It works, too, even though I knew it was coming.

There is something significant that The Help fails to address, though. That’s the aftermath. Once Skeeter has written and published her book anonymously, we do see a bit of what happens in Jackson after the fact. We’re going to dive head-first in spoilers here, so you may need to skip a paragraph or two if you haven’t seen the film.

*** MMMMM! PIE! ***

It’s soon evident to everyone that the book has been written about maids in Jackson, and some people are clearly able to locate themselves in some of the stories. This is particularly hard on Hilly, since one of the stories involves her firing Minny, only to have Minny then serve her a chocolate pie containing her own shit. Hilly denies it, of course, but it’s soon clear that she’s going to take great pleasure in getting back at everyone involved.

And as this starts to happen, Skeeter is offered an editorial position in New York. And she leaves, free from any of the consequences that might have befallen her socially if she happened to stay. The maids themselves are not so lucky. They don’t get a nice job up north, and they’re now living in a city that has a social and legal license to take retribution on them.

We’re supposed to feel exonerated by the end of the film—it was some white people that helped make things better, after all, but then those white people don’t have to live with the terrible consequences of what they’ve done. That’s a problem. Not everybody gets to walk away unscathed. The fact that Minny is working for Celia Rae isn’t going to stop Hilly from trying to destroy her, and Minny has nowhere else to go.

*** NO ROOM FOR A THIRD SLICE ***

So, The Help has its problems. Regardless, I think it’s a hell of a good story, and I’m pleased that I finally got around to seeing it.

Why to watch The Help: It’s a hell of a good story and a tremendous cast.
Why not to watch: It’s geared to hit on white guilt, and not all of its lessons are good ones.

10 comments:

  1. I had very similar misgivings about the balance between the story arcs and the white women and the black women. I did like that it took place in a largely female world, something you rarely see in films. But yes, the ending is a cop-out.

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    1. Yeah, it has its problems. On the plus side, it really is a good story an it's beautifully made, so the problems are a molified.

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  2. It seems very unlikely to me that there is such a thing as "white guilt." Liberal white people are opposed to racism and oppression and inequality and poll taxes and lynching and slavery because such opposition is the right stance to take and the most sensible social position for anyone who believes in a progressive future for mankind. Not because they feel guilty about it.

    I am in my 50s and have met a lot of white liberals over the decades. I have never met a single one that chose not to be a racist just because they felt guilty about the despicable acts of their society or their ancestors.

    White guilt is a myth.

    It's been a while since I saw The Help, but I remember liking it quite a bit. Especially Jessica Chastain.

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    1. Oh, I think it is a thing, but it's not one I fall for. "White guilt" as a concept is essentially feeling guilty for the actions of one's ancestry in relation to actions taken against ethnic minorities. There are plenty of white folks who feel like they should bear some guilt for actions of the past.

      So, while it may not make sense or be useful, it exists, and The Help wants to play on it.

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    2. I've been on the lookout for the existence of "white guilt" for 30 years. And I have never seen any, unless you count the sheer number of people who say "yeah, sure, it exists" without any further elaboration.















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    3. I literally just elaborated on it.

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    4. I should have said "without much elaboration." Sorry about that. But you must admit that your elaboration would probably not be very convincing to somebody who doesn't accept the "white guilt" framing.

      To be more specific, I'd prefer to hear about some examples of white liberals who support progressive causes related to race merely because they feel guilty and not because it is the right thing to do. I've never run into anyone who supports liberal causes because they feel guilty.

      "White guilt" is a conservative frame to minimize the role of race in society. If you buy the frame, then you are accepting the idea that "white liberals" support racial justice merely because they feel guilty and not because the causes have any justice to them.

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    5. Oh, I don't think that there's anyone who would point at their guilt as to why they might do something in this context. I'm suggesting, and I'm suggesting it specifically because I have heard people say essentially what follows, that there are people who feel actual guilt over the actions of their ancestors.

      I don't think white liberals support racial justice because of guilty feelings. I think they support racial justice and have guilty feelings at the same time.

      Gun to head, I think a lot of this comes from liberal forms of Christianity. Like it or not, the idea of people being punished for the sins of the father is a part of the religion. We need look no further than the concept of original sin to see that. I don't think those people who buy into that concept are feeding the homeless because of original sin. I think they believe in original sin and also might do things to help others.

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    6. In my experience, "white guilt" doesn't exist in any significant quantity. I seldom see it used except as a way to minimize progressive causes, and liberals in general. For example, a few years ago when "12 Years a Slave" won the Best Picture Oscar, trolls were all over the Internet attributing the win to "white guilt." As if "12 Years a Slave" wasn't really that great a movie.

      Perhaps "white guilt" does exist, but I have a hard time believing that it exists in a large enough quantity that the term has any use or meaning outside of racists that get upset over things like the existence of the BET awards.

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    7. See, I don't hear it in reference to things like the BET awards.

      But in reference to The Help and other movies, there is a definite connection, and one that is ultimately destructive (to the person, not the movie). Plenty of people watched this and saw themselves as Skeeter, thinking that this would be how they'd want to act in that situation. Anyone suffering some sort of "sins of the father" guilt and watching this movie almost certainly wouldn't identify with Aibileen, but would see her as someone needing to be helped rather than as someone capable in her own right.

      I'm not saying it's right and I'm not saying it's pervasive. I'm saying it exists.

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