The sleeper hit of the Summer is “The Help,” which topped the box office in its second week and has already grossed over seventy million dollars. The adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel about African-American maids working in white Southern homes in the 1960s has received good reviews too. Despite this, I have seen lots of criticism on Twitter (and around the Blogosphere) calling the film racist. So what’s the deal with this film? Is it worthwhile or actually racist? In my opinion, the angry tweets I’ve read have failed to pinpoint the real reason the film has so many people up in arms.
I’m not sure if everyone knows this, but film is a big love of mine, so much, in fact, that I first moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California Film School. I was knee deep in foreign films and the auteur theory when, about halfway through my first semester, a girl I went to high school with named Temi came to town and arranged a dinner with the four or five of us from our high school who were attending college in Los Angeles.
Temi wasn’t like any other girl at our high school. She was smart as a whip (I’m pretty sure she was our valedictorian or salutatorian or something -torian), and so committed to womyn’s rights (as she spelled it) that she refused to wear a bra or shave her legs. I was pretty impressed by how fervently Temi stood for what she believed, and had a bit of a crush on her. (Full disclosure: my crush may have also had something to do with the fact that she was pretty good looking.)
Unfortunately Temi DID NOT have a crush on me. I was a loud teenage boy into baseball, pepperoni pizza, and explosion packed summer movies, and she fantasized about college boys who were vegetarians and read Erica Jong.
Anyway, at this high school reunion dinner of sorts Temi talked about how sexist American films were, and – likely in an effort to impress her – I launched into a big spiel about how I was going to make films that had complex, interesting female leads. Temi told me that was great, but emphasized that that wasn’t the answer to solving sexism in American film. “You’re a man,” she said, “And you shouldn’t feel shame about writing from the male experience. You have the right to tell your story. But so do women. The answer isn’t for men to portray women more truthfully, but for Hollywood to allow women to make movies that tell their story too.”
I have no idea what happened to Temi (she isn’t on Facebook…the horror!), but I still remember what she said that night. It was a sage observation, and one that can be applied to the controversy surrounding “The Help.” “The Help” dramatizes the civil rights’ era from the perspective of a white woman who grew up in the South amidst all of the turmoil, and her story has resonated with a lot of people. And, to paraphrase Temi, Kathryn Stockett shouldn’t feel shame for writing about the civil rights era from her experience.
What IS a shame, and the thing that is really upsetting so many people I think, is that Hollywood so rarely allows African Americans to make movies that tell their story. For every “Malcolm X,” a civil rights era drama directed by an African-American told from the perspective of an African American, Hollywood makes a dozen movies about a strong white person who heroically stands up against racism like:
MISSISSIPPI BURNING – where two white FBI agents fight to solve the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.
THE POWER OF ONE – where a white English boy dedicates his life to fighting for the rights of blacks in Africa.
THE LONG WALK HOME – where a white woman stands up against racism when the Great Bus Boycott makes it impossible for her black maid to get to work.
And many, many more.
This lack of diversity in Hollywood films is the problem, I think. If “The Help” was released among many films about the civil rights era told from many different perspectives (of both sexes and different races), I doubt so many people would have had a problem with it. But hey… that’s just the perspective of this former film school schmo who still loves pepperoni pizza, baseball, and explosion packed summer movies.