Thursday, December 8, 2011

Second Look: The Help

Imagine that a movie was to made about the struggle for women's rights and equality. Now imagine that it was to be made completely by men - the director, writer and producer are all male. That's not so terrible, perhaps. There are many talented men who demonstrate a keen understanding and awareness of a woman's point of view and who could do a fine job.

But now imagine that the characters in that movie were overwhelmingly men. That would really raise some eyebrows. Yet you could still defend it as a side of the story that needed to be told. Surely there were men who helped out in the women's cause, right? It wouldn't be an altogether convincing defence but one you could make nonetheless.

Alright then. Now imagine that this movie wasn't just one side of the story but was the only perspective given to the exclusion of all others. Year after year, for decades, the only time a woman has her story told it's from the standpoint of a man who saves her and helps her gain dignity. Isn't that just a lovely message after all, that women should be given equality?

Of course, that's just blatantly absurd. It would be blindingly obvious that the supposed message of the movies was being undermined by the inherent sexism in their casting and storytelling perspective.

Fortunately, things aren't quite that bad for women. Yes, they're not nearly as good for women as men but at least there are some movies that are being made by and for women and that feature women in interesting roles.

Not so for black people and minorities, however. The ridiculousness of the above scenario is the longstanding reality. This situation has persisted for ages and doesn't seem to be changing any time soon. The Help, which was just released on DVD this week, is a case in point.

The surprise hit is a pleasant enough film. It tells the story of a black maids in 1960s Mississippi. The protagonist though is a writer played by Emma Stone who gets them to speak up about their difficult situation. There are some touching moments and some good laughs (as well as some forced ones) but it's a middling movie for the most part. It works in the way you'd expect but without any complexity or depth.

One thing that stands out in the film is the acting. The cast is uniformly excellent. Many have praised the actresses as potentially Oscar-worthy especially the two black characters played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. They are indeed very good. In fact, they're good enough to carry the movie by themselves.

So why don't they? Why is a movie that is supposed to be about them since they are "the help" really about the white people who come to their rescue? If not this movie, why not give them lead roles in others? Viola Davis has been so good for so long and has won two Tony Awards. She's also very beautiful. She should be headlining major features and starring alongside A-listers like Brad Pitt, Denzel Washnigton or George Clooney.

But unfortunately, Hollywood is racist. And they justify their racism by believing that all white people are racist. That's right – they project their racism onto others. They know they can make money selling movies with white leads to everyone both domestically and internationally because everyone accepts white actors. But white audiences won't pay to see non-white actors, or so Hollywood believes. So the only way a minorities can get their stories told in a mainstream film is if they are secondary characters in a "White Messiah" story like The Help, The Blind Side, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, Mississippi Burning, etc., etc.

For Asians, the situation is especially pathetic, since they won't even put Asians in supporting roles unless they're broad stereotypes or objects of ridicule. Otherwise, they just make them all Caucasian as they did with 21 or The Last Airbender. If it weren't for Harold and Kumar, there wouldn't be any Hollywood films with North American-born Asians in the lead.

So it's small comfort for black actors that they at least get some roles. But in a time where the President of the United States is black, it's long past time to give visible minorities dignified roles in the forefront. These maid roles may not quite be Jar-Jar Binks, but then they're not so far off either.

Sure, The Help has gotten a great deal of praise and will likely win a healthy share of awards. That won't, however, hide the shameful nature of this film. By focusing on the Civil Rights era they've made a movie that is anti-racist, but it's very existence as yet another in a long line of "White Messiah" films is deeply, deeply racist.

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