So things just got more difficult for Barack Obama: just after the conclusion of what has been arguably the most trying fortnight of his presidency, he now has to bear the cross of having to be the first sitting black President during the release of the latest Hollywood “race fable”, The Help.
What does The Help have to do with Obama? Well, at the surface, very little: the film is decidedly and deliberately apolitical and hesitates to make any marked assertions about race, race relations and racism that existed in the zeitgeist of the novel/film and that persist to this day. It is precisely because of this feel-good, saccharine coziness to which the film aspires that Barack Obama (and everything that he and his status as Leader of The Free World) jumps into the forefront of one’s mind when watching The Help.
Yes, I know the film is based on a the fictionalized accounts of real stories inspired by the legions of black female domestic workers who raised generations of white children in Jim Crow America and whose legacy can never fully be approximated, not even with the help of the mass media publishing industry or a Disney produced Hollywood feature film. And I also know that filmmakers had only the purest of intentions in crafting a film that they believe pays homage to the very real black nannies and household help that existed in their lives. It’s a love letter, they want us to believe. At times, it seems like they are begging us to believe in their sentimental tribute.
Unfortunately, this moving, talking love letter on celluloid misses one GIANT fact: the fact that the stories it purports as representative of life for the average black domestic worker in the 1950s and 60s feels more like a fairy tale than like anything one could possibly identify as ‘reality’. Much of the fault lies with the fact that the characters are (despite the earnest performances by the actresses who play them) stock stereotypes: there is the young enlightened writer on a mission (Emma Stone), the catty and racist white society women (Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard and Allison Janney), the sassy black confidante (Octavia Spencer), and the noble but suffering black woman with a heart of gold (Viola Davis) whose primary function it is to light the way for her racist upper class counterparts.
These women interact in ways that are so benign and historically implausible that if one believes the historical account given by the film, one would have thought that racism in America were simply a bothersome nuisance, rather than the all-encompassing dehumanization and systematic subjugation of an entire people. Instead of riots, lynchings, and institutionalized prejudice, the women of the film confront each other with tepid “girlfriend” speak and a host of stereotypes that even the most boorish Hollywood studio executive would find insulting. At one point, one of the black female characters actually utters the phrase “I do loves me some fried chicken!” Then she shakes her head and slaps her behind.
Consider it for a moment. I mean really consider it. This line is said in this movie. A film that purports itself to be about enlightened race relations and the elevation of black women. In 2011. In the Age of Obama.
Um, progress much?
Despite its earnest intentions to depict a specific branch of American history (that of the fearless white Civil Rights Crusader), the film ultimately feels grossly inadequate when one considers the very complex and lurid reality of race and racism in America. I kept thinking of Obama and his very calculated attempts to remove race from his politicking (he never wants to be seen as the ‘black’ candidate, lest the color of his skin make white voters uncomfortable with their own racial misgivings and thereby less likely to vote for him because he may have reminded them of what minorities and African Americans in particular have had to endure throughout American history up to and through the election of Barack Obama . . . you know, the whole raging against “The Man” spiel that leads venting minorities to be labeled as “angry” and “belligerent” . . . but that’s a tangent for another day). The Help does everything it can to remove the ugly truth of racism from the reality of the story purely for the sake of not making audiences uncomfortable. And that is an inexplicable shame.
In the end, the film will probably be warmly received by the audience for which it is clearly made: women (in particular white women) who will enjoy the film for its feel good revisionism and the fact that it doesn’t ask any hard questions or allow any of its characters to make any tough assertions for fear of kicking up some bitter dust of the past.