“The Help” isn’t racist, but audiences may be

I initially planned to avoid seeing “The Help,” directed by Tate Taylor, for a pretty lame reason: I’m not its target audience. This logic works for a lot of people, but I’ve loved enough films geared towards demographics vastly divergent from mine to know that I shouldn’t discriminate based on this criterion. There’s just something about movies made for the suburban book club crowd that sends me running the other way.

In the case of “The Help,” it was the recent accusations of racism that got me to the theater. I find the ongoing debate about Taylor’s movie (and the Kathryn Stockett novel upon which it’s based) far more enticing than any part of Dreamworks’s saccharine marketing campaign. “The Help” has been accused by many of featuring the same unintentional bigotry that often plagues movies with racial themes, but the film also has fiercely loyal defenders, eager to explain why “The Help” doesn’t fit that mold.

I understand that I am in an odd position to offer an opinion on this issue. I am a white undergrad at a school where approximately 3% of the students are black, but I saw the movie and formed an opinion that I wanted to share. Feel free to disregard everything I say.

I didn’t love “The Help.” To be honest, I wouldn’t even say that it’s particularly good, but I also don’t think that it’s racist. In my opinion, John Lee Hancock’s “The Blind Side” is racist. It treats its main black character as a misunderstood pet with no point of view, saved and guided by holy white people. “The Help,” on the other hand, features human characters on both sides of the racial divide. This isn’t a story in which relatable white saviors solve the problems of lowly black maids. Instead, “The Help” shows intelligent people with different skin colors uniting to promote social change.

I also disagree with claims that this film perpetuates the “mammy” stereotype, in which old-fashioned black maids are shown as perfectly content with their subservience. One look at Aibileen Clark’s (played by the wonderful Viola Davis) face proves that she is anything but content with her job or position in society. Indeed, the whole story revolves around the discontent of maids in the 1960s. Though I’d prefer to see Davis and Octavia Spencer (portraying Minny Jackson, another maid) in more modern roles, there is nothing wrong with black actors realistically portraying maids.

I will concede that I’d be more impressed with “The Help” if the filmmakers had granted the movie’s villains (led by Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly Holbrook) a little more nuance. I think the actors and writers took the easy way out by making these characters complete cartoons. Their racist ideals should certainly be considered outrageous, but it belittles the situation to ignore the fact that the maids’ employers are also human. Kate Winslet proved that this cartoonish approach is unnecessary when she portrayed a Nazi in Stephen Daldry’s morally complex “The Reader.”

Overall, I think the charges against “The Help” stem from the movie-going audience’s racism rather than that of the filmmakers. It is not Tate Taylor’s fault that filmgoers (of all skin colors) may chuckle condescendingly at some of the black characters’ lines; from what I could tell, the film does nothing to invite this response. It is also not his fault that studios seem more likely to fund a civil rights movie if a white character shares the spotlight. Evaluation of “The Help,” as a film, should not be impacted by our shortcomings as a society.

As I’ve mentioned, the movie has its flaws. The storytelling is unfocused, the “emotional” moments are often unearned, and many characters remain underdeveloped by the time the credits roll. I’m just grateful that these are the complaints I came away with rather than the larger, more worrisome issue of contemporary racism.