August 28, 2011
Dangerous White Stereotypes
By PATRICIA A. TURNER
ONE of the most noteworthy movies of the summer is “The Help.” Set in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, it focuses on the relationships between white upper-middle-class women and the black domestics who took care of them and their children. Although many reviews of the film were quite positive, numerous critics, including some African-American commentators, have lashed out against it, arguing that the film does not deserve the accolades it has received.
To some extent, they have been angry that the movie is based on a novel by a white woman, Kathryn Stockett, and they question whether she is capable of telling that particular story. Some have also complained that the movie reinforces stereotypes about black Southern households. The black heroines speak with a dialect that disturbs some viewers; the audience never sees an intact black household, and a black man’s abuse of his wife is all the more chilling because we never see him, only the pots he hurls and the scars he leaves.
One maid’s close bond with the white toddler she cares for has been decried as a re-enactment of the misconception that maids nurtured their white charges while denigrating their own black offspring.
Not all blacks are unmoved by “The Help.” Indeed, among my friends, relatives and colleagues a wide range of views have been shared, including comments that some of us might want to establish a support group for strong black women who liked “The Help.”
It is unfair to the filmmakers and cast to expect a work of fiction to adhere to the standards of authenticity we would want for a documentary. But we also recognize that precious few works of art tackle the Civil Rights era, and what people coming of age in the 21st century learn about this era often stems from fictive rather than nonfictive sources.
Forty-eight years after Martin Luther King Jr. was accompanied by tens of thousands of black domestic workers to the National Mall in Washington to demand economic justice, it is not all that difficult to render black fictional characters with appealing attributes and praiseworthy talents. What is more difficult to accomplish is a verisimilar rendering of the white characters.
This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists.
There’s a problem, though, with that message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.
Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.
But that wasn’t the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man’s Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. An analogue can be seen in the way popular culture treats Germans up to and during World War II. Good people were never anti-Semites; only detestable people participated in Hitler’s cause.
Cultures function and persist by consensus. 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 one.
I have dim recollections of watching Dr. King in 1963, with the black maid who raised me — my mother. If my father wasn’t in the room, he was working to make sure there would be opportunities in my future. I have benefited enormously from their hard work and from the shift that American culture has undergone as the scaffolding of discrimination was dismantled.
My parents, and the countless other black Americans who not only endured but thrived within the limited occupational sphere granted them, would have been proud of what has been accomplished since 1963, but they would not have wanted us to whitewash that earlier world.
Patricia A. Turner is a professor of African American studies and the vice provost for undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis. Her most recent book is “Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters.”