American historical films are forever refighting old wars, congratulating themselves for being on the right side, and encouraging viewers to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side, too. They view the war from the general's tent up on a distant hill and imagine that they're right in the thick of it. That's how Paul Haggis' "Crash" swept the Oscars in 2006 -- by serving up a contemporary story of Los Angelenos who said and did brazenly racist things in public constantly, as if it were 1967 and everyone was wearing love beads, Afros and hard hats. The characters seemed crude and primitive, lacking in self-awareness, unenlightened; this made them easy to label, judge and dismiss. A variation on this strategy has enabled another race drama, "The Help," to become an instant hit, a likely Oscar contender, and yet another reminder that when mainstream cinema depicts discrimination, it tends to ask the same two questions: "How did this affect white people?" and "Aren't you glad you're not bigoted like the creeps in this movie?"Chime in below.
Based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, and endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, this civil rights-era movie about a young Caucasian writer telling the harsh but true stories of African-American domestics appears to grant the stories of its white and black characters equal weight. It even gives the voice-over narration to one of the maids, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis). But the pretense of dramatic equality collapses if you look at what's actually happening on-screen, and what got marginalized or omitted.
And so, yet again, for what seems like the zillionth time, a heart-tugging Hollywood film transforms a harrowing and magnificent period of African-American life into a story of once-blinkered white people becoming enlightened. The black characters' struggles are sensitively rendered, magnificently acted, and sometimes heartbreaking sideshows. Although Viola Davis' subtle performance anchors the movie, and will likely earn this perpetually underrated actress an Oscar nomination, giving Aibileen the movie's voice-over won't fool anybody. This is Skeeter's movie. She's the one who sets the plot in motion. Without her youthful idealism, these downtrodden black women would have continued to suffer in silence.
I've heard somewhat sheepish arguments to the effect that the white folks' stories take center stage in these films because they're more clearly dramatic. Why? Well, you see, it's because drama -- commercial mainstream drama, anyway -- is about people learning, changing and growing, and the non-white characters' stories are less dramatic because they already know discrimination is bad, which means their "arcs" are inherently less interesting. No, I promise you, some moviemakers really do think this way. The only proper response to this kind of thinking is to smack one's forehead -- or better yet, the filmmaker's -- with a tack hammer. At least it's offered timidly and rarely, and as a commercial rather than an artistic defense.
Even more problematic is the overriding sense -- conveyed not just in "The Help," but in so many historical movies -- that the era being depicted is tucked safely away in the past, a closed chapter, and the collective insanity that gripped society has dissipated thanks to the efforts of good-hearted people like you, the viewer.
Question: Why do movies like The Help keep getting made? Why are these stories seldom told from the victim's point of view?
Why Hollywood keeps whitewashing the past [Salon]
Melissa Harris-Perry: ‘The Help’ movie ‘ahistorical and deeply troubling’ [RawStory]
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