Second Opinion: The Help misrepresents race, history

Since its 2009 release, Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help has received a substantial amount of attention, including numerous critiques of its historical anachronisms and racial portrayals.

While I am exhausted by the frequency at which I have explained my qualms with both the film and novel, the renewed popularity of the title seems to merit an opposing response to the review published in The Lamron two weeks ago.

That review applauded the film because "it treats racial issues differently, and does a great job capturing the time period of segregation in the South … it accurately depicts a part of United States history."

From where I stand, The Help is neither innovative nor accurate in its representation of the "racial issues" at the core of segregation and the civil rights movement. Despite what the advertisements for the film suggest, change did not begin "with a whisper."  

Part of my issue with The Help has to do with the concept of representation. Who is allowed to tell whose story, how and for whose benefit? Who plays the main character and who is relegated to the periphery? These questions concerning representation permeate both the novel and the film.  

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, professor of Māori and indigenous peoples at the University of Waikato, theorizes that representation is often conflated with truth. While The Help announces itself as fiction, the false idea that truth is implicit in representation is still relevant. In discussing both novel and film, I can't recall how many times people have said, "That's how it was back then." To me, this suggests that the novel is being read as an accurate depiction of the period.

I am unsettled at the implications of this reception of the way the civil rights era exists in the American imagination. The only characters to whom Stockett affords any real agency are white; however, black people across America at the time were actively fighting for change, with or without the help of whites.   

In her review of the film, Patricia Turner – vice provost of undergraduate studies and faculty member in the programs of African and African American Studies at the University of California, Davis – posits, "In Jackson and other bastions of the Jim Crow South, the pervasive notion, among poor whites and rich, that blacks were unworthy of full citizenship was as unquestioned as the sanctity of church on Sunday. The Help tells a compelling and gripping story, but it fails to tell that story." As Turner points out, this "gripping story" turns racism into the problem of racists, which undermines the fact that, historically, white supremacy has been practically as American as apple pie.

Quite frankly, this rewriting of history is dangerous in that it perpetuates a post-racial ideology. We cannot sit back and say, "That's how it was back then," and not interrogate the systemic inequalities that still exist along racial lines.

In light of films like The Help (or The Blind Side for that matter), it is important that as a society we question why we consume these images and what function they have in the collective and individual imaginations. Are they stopping us from doing the real work of challenging institutional inequities by providing the illusion of post-racial bliss?

I will leave you with an apt assessment from Rebecca Wanzo, associate professor of women's studies at Washington University in St. Louis: "It is important to remember, through your happy tears, what The Help does not help us know." I hope, if nothing else, that the popularity of this film has provided the occasion for some necessary conversations regarding popular representations of race.