Friday, August 26, 2011

Disney's "The Help"

I used to have this fond memory of going to the drive-in when I was 7 or 8 to see a Disney movie. I couldn't remember the name of it, only that it was a mix of live-action and animation and it was pure magic. In my late teens and early twenties, I tried in vain to find this movie, hoping I'd discover it someday and have a giddy nostalgia trip courtesy of Blockbuster Video. Not until I reached grad school did I find out what this movie was. For me, grad school was mostly about finding out that global media companies are evil. We were discussing said evilness in class one day when the subject of Disney's Song of the South came up, and I realized with dawning horror that this was the movie I'd remembered so fondly. Banned from distribution for decades for its vile racism, the movie had captured the imagination of this particular impressionable viewer. This realization brought up sundry troubling questions: Had I been indoctrinated by racist filmmakers? Was I beyond saving? Did the 8-year-old me want a happy field slave to hang out with, just like the little boy in Song of the South has Uncle Remus? Needless to say, I didn't like myself for a few days after that, the day grad school made me choke on my nostalgia.

Song of the South came out 65 years ago, and Disney's The Help represents nothing if not progress. (Yes, this is a Disney movie; the company now distributes approximately six DreamWorks pictures a year.) Based on the hit 2009 work of fiction by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is about an ambitious young journalist named Skeeter (Emma Stone), a well-off white woman living in segregated Mississippi in 1963. A natural-born rebel (when we first see her, she's driving with the top down and listening to "Jackson" by Johnny Cash), Skeeter encourages a dozen or so local black maids to tell their stories, even though by doing so they'll be violating quite a few Jim Crow laws. The script focuses on Aibileen and Minny, two maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Despite the flaws of the movie they appear in, I have no reservations about giving their performances unequivocal praise. If The Help turns out to be Oscar bait (and I have a feeling it might), then the Academy shouldn't overlook Davis and Spencer.

Stockett is a white woman who has clearly educated herself, as evidenced by the scene where Skeeter talks about how "Margaret Mitchell glorified the mammy figure." The film adaptation of her book sees the black Southern maids of the Jim Crow era for what they were: the descendants of house slaves who found themselves in a situation not very dissimilar from that of their grandmothers. But, I'm unhappy to report, The Help Disneyfies the solution to the problem. Skeeter is depicted as committing a revolutionary act, and so is Minny's new employer (Jessica Chastain), who crosses an invisible line by sitting down for lunch with her maid instead of eating at her dining room table. In contrast, Skeeter – and, by extension, the filmmakers – judges her mother (Allison Janney) very harshly for failing to show that kind of courage. The movie seems to think racial progress (or lack thereof) hinged on the courageousness of white people, not on the hopes, struggles and perseverance of blacks.

I mostly liked The Help. I don't think it's going to cause the kind of damage to the younger generation that Song of the South caused me. Still, I find its portrait of magnanimous whites to be a little... dishonest. The only truly racist major character in the movie is played by Bryce Dallas Howard. She's the villain of the piece, but what the filmmakers don't seem to understand is that in the Mississippi of 1963 her behavior would have been condoned by her friends and relatives, not derided. The Help reminds me of a funny bit in Timothy B. Tyson's great 2004 memoir, Blood Done My Sign Name. The author ridicules the idea that the South suddenly became a nice place to live for black people after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. In an imaginary scene, the owner of a whites-only lunch counter throws open his doors and announces, "Y'all come in now! Freedom done come."

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