It has come to my attention that The Help has been trending on Netflix. This 2011 film features Emma Stone as Skeeter, a young writer looking for her big break who doesn’t want to succumb to the South’s old school ways of “find a husband, make babies, and join the junior league.” She decides to write a book about how black maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have to put up with a lot of shit from white people, and that’s pretty much it. (I’ll admit it’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, but I don’t think I really need to rewatch it to make my point here).
I am not going to sit here and try to argue that you shouldn’t watch The Help at all. Plenty of people have already written that post, and from what I’ve seen, all of their criticisms are totally legitimate. We should indeed remember that the film was written and directed by a white man and based on a book written by a white woman. We should make more of an effort to consume media made by black people that primarily center on black narratives, rather than this film which focuses on a white protagonist and the black characters involved oftentimes function to move her story along.
There’s also the fact that this movie that takes place in Mississippi in the 1960s. That lets lots of modern white audiences off the hook. People can watch The Help and think to themselves, “sure that racism stuff is pretty messed up, but it sure is great that society isn’t like that anymore.” This setting allows for relatively simplistic progress on race issues to be portrayed as radical. All Skeeter has to do to be a hero is say “hey maybe we SHOULDN’T be complete jerks to black people though?” And that’s part of why some white people like it. The Help lets you choose to see racism as a relic of the past. And if it’s a relic of the past, then you get to feel good about yourself for not being a racist anymore. You get to feel like a bloody saint simply because you’re willing to use the same bathroom as a black person. The Help doesn’t challenge you to do any better.
But I am.
I can’t change the fact that the movie is trending and that a lot of people have already seen it, so instead I want to focus on the worthwhile lessons we can learn from this film if we look for them. When I saw The Help, one of my favorite parts of it, and perhaps the part I internalized most, was the way that Skeeter listens. There’s a scene where Aibileen (Davis’s Character) says “but what if I don’t have nice things to say about the other white people?” and Skeeter says “that’s okay, keep talking.” (Again, I didn’t rewatch the movie in preparation for this impulsive post, but this is the general gist).
Skeeter listens to what these black women have to say and she uses her whiteness to give them a platform that a racist society never would’ve given them on their own. Did she have her own incentives independent of a social justice crusade? Sure. But ultimately it’s the way Skeeter LISTENS and gives black people a voice that I want to focus on. The Help is a white savior movie, but it’s important to remember that as white people, one of the most saving things we can do is sit down and shut up when black people try to tell us what’s wrong.
The Help is a white savior movie, but it’s important to remember that as white people, one of the most saving things we can do is sit down and shut up when black people try to tell us what’s wrong.
When a black person tries to tell you about a negative experience they had with another white person, listen to them and treat that experience as valid.
When a black person tries to tell you about a negative experience they had with YOU, listen to them and treat that experience as valid.
Don’t say “are you sure you’re not overreacting?”
Don’t say “but what if they didn’t really mean for it to be racist? Maybe they’re mean to white people too!”
Don’t say “okay, but that’s only SOME white people. Most of us are just fine!”
The Help completely falls apart if Skeeter would’ve made those kinds of responses to Aibileen and Minny (Spencer’s character). Any progress made over the course of the film doesn’t happen if Skeeter tries too hard to give white people the benefit of the doubt. And so I implore you, please listen to people of color when they try to educate you about race issues. Listen to them even when they’re too angry to try to be diplomatic about things. Listen to them without nitpicking over semantics. Sit down, shut up, and empathize. Is that enough to completely eradicate racism? Of course not, but I’m willing to bet that most other forms of progress need to start there.
And if black people AREN’T coming forward with such stories to you, take a critical look at yourself. Ask what behaviors you need to change for black people to feel comfortable asking you for help and allyship as they need it. And as you start listening to black voices, ask yourself “is there anything I can do to help other white people better understand this perspective? What can I do to give these black voices the microphone they need without diluting them with my own take on things?”
And in that spirit, while everyone’s hopping on the “what movies and tv you should watch about black people” trend, I thought it best to end this by referring you to such a list made by black people. Here’s a great one from Rasha Ali at USA Today. It features picks from Todd Boyd, chairman for the study of race and popular culture at USC, and Arienne Thompson, adjunct lecturer in journalism at Georgetown University and former USA TODAY pop culture journalist. Have fun watching!