Editorial: White People, You Gotta Stop Watching “The Help”

By Morgan Roberts

Given that the systematic racism perpetuated against Black people is now in the forefront of the news, white people are trying to understand the insidiousness of racism in white society.  It is not just the United States that is racist, though we elected a man who is blatant racist.  The racism in the United Kingdom and Australia is also being noticed.  But, given that George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others were killed in the U.S., we are currently under a microscope.

There are white people genuinely trying to learn about the preponderance of racism in our politics, our local governance, our pop culture, our education system, our healthcare system, and everything in between.  There are plenty of people sharing resources, websites and organizations, as well as books, music, and films to check out.  But for some dumb reason, white people are watching “The Help” (2011).  And that’s part of the problem.

“We all have implicit and unconscious biases and if you’re white, you’re racist. Even just a little. But you can also be anti-racist and do this little thing called learning.”

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in The Help (2011) © DreamWorks

“The Help” is a film I enjoy.  However, now, I am far more focused on the performances and incredibly critical of the narrative.  In essence, the film is a white savior story about a young reporter and a group of working Black women in Mississippi.  There is a lot to unpack here.  First of all, at no point does the film acknowledge that our white protagonist Skeeter (Emma Stone) has benefited in many ways from Black women.  She was raised by Black women.  But she does not fight for equality after seeing years of abuse of Black people.  She decides to share the stories of the working Black women in her community when she is down on her luck, unable to find fulfilling reporting work.  She is only interested in helping when there is a gain for her.

“There are plenty of people sharing resources, websites and organizations, as well as books, music, and films to check out. But for some dumb reason, white people are watching “The Help” (2011). And that’s part of the problem.”

Secondly, the tone is often very cutesy for Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer), as Black women in Mississippi.  MISSISSIPPI.  For those who are unaware, Mississippi is one of the most unsafe states – though, is there really a safe state for Black people? – in the United States.  Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi.  Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi.  In 1964, three Civil Rights workers went missing. Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were white, while the third worker, James Earl Chaney, was black.  Had Goodman and Schwerner not been among the missing, the public would not have cared.  They searched for 44 days until they found the three murdered Civil Rights workers. 

Viola Davis and Emma Stone in The Help (2011) © DreamWorks

During that search dozens of bodies of lynched Black men were discovered – bodies that would have never been recovered without the extensive search.  It was the first time the nation and the world was seeing what Mississippi was doing.  Mississippi did not legally remove racism and blatantly racist law from their state constitution until 2000.  That was merely 20 years ago!  So, having Minnie feed her former employer a shit pie and getting into shenanigans really diminishes that during that time, people were being systematically murdered because of their skin color.

Davis later said that she regretted being a part of the film because of the white savior narrative.  The only “good” things that happen to the Black women are graciously bestowed by the white women.  It is not a good narrative.  And I get it, other white people.  It feels nice to be a part of dismantling racism but we are the people who put that system in place; we have benefitted from that system for so long.  If we want it dismantled, we have to listen to the voices of people who have been oppressed by that system.  If we oppressed others the first time making the system, we are sure to royally mess it up again.

“Mississippi did not legally remove racism and blatantly racist law from their state constitution until 2000. That was merely 20 years ago!”

White people, we love to insert ourselves into movements that aren’t ours.  We love tout our privilege without budging to relinquish it.  We see that in how we have ourselves portrayed.  I mean, “The Blind Side” (2009) and “Green Book” (2018) were Oscar contenders – the latter won Best Picture – and both portray white people as some champions for Black people.  Gross.  

When I think of the way we see ourselves, I am reminded of “Get Out” (2017) and what that demonstrated.  I remember seeing the film in the cinema.  During a first watch, you can pick up on some things: Dean (Bradley Whitford) saying that he would vote for Obama for a third term after talking about how much he loves taking other cultures, Missy (Catherine Keener) trying to unpack someone’s trauma from a place of privilege, and Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) trying to assert physical dominance at dinner.  Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) the whole time is just attempting to defuse situations.  Something he has been forced to do his whole life as a Black man. 

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in Get Out (2017) © 2016 Universal Pictures

“Davis later said that she regretted being a part of the film because of the white savior narrative. The only “good” things that happen to the Black women are graciously bestowed by the white women.”

But the thing that struck me, and really made me check my privilege was in regard to Rose (Allison Williams). Rose is educated, she doesn’t see color, and she is more bothered by her family’s racist antics than Chris is. Yet, when all of the signs start pointing that Rose is putting on an act and is far more like her family than we were led to believe, I pushed those red flags aside. Why? Because as an educated white woman, it is hard to see yourself on screen in that manner.  There were literal photographs of her with a host of Black men (and one woman) as her significant others, and I still ignored the signs!  She had to be holding the keys, trapping Chris for me to fully accept that she was a villain.  

Williams, to her credit, has been very vocal about debunking white people’s theories that Rose was also brainwashed or not as bad.  While on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2017, Williams said white people are always approaching her about this, and she has to correct them. Rose was evil.  She was a racist just like the rest of her family. Again, I GET IT.  It’s hard to admit that you’re racist.  We all have implicit and unconscious biases and if you’re white, you’re racist. Even just a little. But you can also be anti-racist and do this little thing called learning.  And watching “The Help” doesn’t count.

If film/television is your favorite medium, there are SO many films to watch that will be educational.  Try some of these instead:

“4 Little Girls” (1997) – HBO

13th” (2016) – Netflix

“Black Girl” (1966) – HBO

Angela Davis in 13th (2016) Photo by Netflix

“BlackKklansman” (2018) – HBO

“Dear White People” (2014) – Rent/Buy

“Do the Right Thing” (1989) – Rent/Buy

Fruitvale Station” (2013) – Rent/Buy

“Get Out” (2017) – Rent/Buy

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) – Prime

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro (2016) ©
ARTE, Independent Lens, RTBF

“I Am Not Your Negro” (2016) – Prime

“Just Mercy” (2020) – Free to Stream

The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2016) – Prime

Mudbound” (2017) – Netflix

“Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” (2018) – HBO

Selma” (2010) – Free to Stream

“Sorry to Bother You” (2018) – Hulu

Tessa Thompson and LaKeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You (2018) Photo by Annapurna Pictures

“TIME: The Kalief Browder Story” (2017) – Netflix

“When They See Us” (2019) – Netflix

“Whose Streets?” (2017) – Hulu

There are many more films and series to watch.  This is just a jumping off point.  Education is key to this movement. 

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