Commentary: When it comes to race relations, 'The Help' isn't much help

Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) overhears the exchange between Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, center) and her friends in "The Help," opening Wednesday.

©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) overhears the exchange between Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, center) and her friends in "The Help," opening Wednesday.

Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, a southern society girl returns from college determined to become a writer, but turns her friends' lives -- and ...

Rating: PG-13 for thematic material

Length: 137 minutes

Released: August 10, 2011 Nationwide

Cast: Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain

Director: Tate Taylor

Writer: Tate Taylor, Kathryn Stockett

More info and showtimes »

FORT WORTH, Texas — On Feb. 10, 2009, exactly three weeks after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" was published in the United States. A tale of an ambitious young white woman in Jackson, Miss., circa 1962, who wants to write about the experiences of the African-American maids in her racially polarized community, the book had been initially rejected by dozens of literary agents on its road to publication.

The New York Times review was mixed, but correctly predicted that it was going to be "wildly popular." A more favorable review in Publisher's Weekly took note of the book's excellent timing: On the heels of the first black president being swept into the White House on a wave of populist enthusiasm, here was an "optimistic, uplifting debut novel" that re-examined the wounds of the Civil Rights era.

For her part, the Jackson-born Stockett says she never set out to tap into a cultural zeitgeist or make any grand proclamations about race relations. She just wanted to write a compelling story, partly inspired by the maids who helped raise her in the late 1970s and '80s.

The subject of race, Stockett told me when we talked last month, just isn't something you openly talk about if you're from Jackson — even if you have written a novel about race.

But this much is certain: "The Help" struck a chord, and then it turned into a phenomenon. By the summer of 2009, it had lodged itself high on the New York Times bestseller list. By the end of 2010, it had sold more than 3 million hardcover copies. It's presently ranked No. 1 on the trade paperback and e-book charts. And the novel is about to enjoy yet another commercial boost, courtesy of a faithful, sure-handed film version, directed by Stockett's childhood friend, Tate Taylor, which opens nationwide on Wednesday.

An endearing Cinderella story, no doubt. And make no mistake, "The Help" is nothing if not an effective piece of contemporary fiction — a brisk melodrama that makes you laugh, makes you cry and, ultimately, awards its noble black characters triumph.

But despite all of this, some nagging, uncomfortable questions linger:

Does "The Help" peddle in the worst sort of stereotypes, about the Great White Hope who must provide moral and spiritual guidance to otherwise helpless black people?

Does the novel use the very real, very ugly history of Mississippi in the 1960s — including the murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, which provides the backdrop for a critical stretch of the book — as fodder for what is ultimately a feel-good fairy tale?

And perhaps the most gnawing issue of all: Is the book's success truly an example of a "post-race" society — the brave new Utopia promised by the election of Obama — or an illustration of a more troubling reality? Have white Americans become all too content to talk about race in the past tense — as a knotty problem that finally got solved, as opposed to one that now might actually be more complicated than ever?

"The Help" begins in August 1962, shortly after Eugenia Phelan, aka Skeeter (played by Emma Stone in the film version), has graduated from Ole Miss and returned to her childhood home in Jackson. Skeeter pines for a career in publishing, possibly even as a writer — only she doesn't have a subject worth writing about. A light bulb goes off after she visits her friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who rails against households that allow the black help to use the same bathroom facilities used by the white members of the family.

What if, Skeeter wonders, she could interview the black maids about their experiences and publish a book?

No one talks about race, she argues, pitching the idea to an editor at Harper and Row in New York. "No one talks about anything down here," she says.

I first read "The Help" in early November 2009, after a number of female friends had recommended it. I raced through it in a few days, entertained and a little squeamish. I never got past Stockett's use of language in the novel, which is narrated in alternating chapters by Skeeter and two of the African-American maids she comes to interview, saintly and shy Aibileen (Viola Davis) and independent-minded Minny (Octavia Spencer).

Just consider these sentences from one of the Aibileen chapters, written in a voice that occupies an awkward middle ground, somewhere between Alice Walker's carefully wrought diction in "The Color Purple" and an "Amos 'n' Andy" skit.

"You'd never know it living here, but Jackson, Mississippi be filled with two hundred thousand peoples. I see them numbers in the paper and I got to wonder, where do them peoples live."

I was troubled, too, by the fact that "The Help" is ultimately Skeeter's story — a tale of a white woman who triumphs on the shoulders of black characters. Working in secret, Skeeter persuades Aibileen to get other maids to talk about their lives. Even when Aibileen or Minny is narrating the story, it's Skeeter whose actions dictate the narrative. Will she be able to secure enough interview subjects? Will she finish her book before the deadline imposed by an editor in New York? (In one unfortunate subplot, thankfully pared back in the film, we also wonder if she will ever find a good man.)

For decades, we've seen books, plays and movies about Southern race relations that invariably place white people at the center, and usually as the savior: "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Mississippi Burning," even "A Time To Kill." "The Help" falls right in line. It's a story that allows white readers to feel good about the way black and white characters band together in the face of racism, even as it also reaffirms a "whites lead, blacks follow" social structure.

As it turned out, a few days after I finished reading "The Help," I went to a screening of "The Blind Side," surely the most egregious recent example of the Great White Hope movie. It stars Sandra Bullock as a brassy white Memphis woman named Leigh Anne Tuohy who takes under her wing an African-American teenager and pushes him to gridiron glory. (The movie is based on the true story of once-homeless football player Michael Oher, played by Quinton Aaron.)

And then I watched, with dismay but not necessarily surprise, as "The Blind Side" turned into its own phenomenon. Here was a movie that trafficked in nothing but stereotypes and yet allows its white viewers to feel enlightened and progressive. We tsk-tsk Leigh Anne's racist, ladies-who-lunch friends. But the one person in the film who questions her motivations — an NCAA investigator who wonders if Leigh Anne might be using Oher to prop up her alma mater Ole Miss' football team — is transformed into the villain of the piece.

And just as "The Help" takes Aibileen and Minny's stories and gives ownership of them to Skeeter, "The Blind Side" takes Michael Oher's story and makes a white Hollywood superstar the leading lady. Was this truly what the Obama presidency wrought: an invitation to indulge in triumph-over-adversity underdog tales? Meanwhile, the few recent works that bring a measure of nuance to the discussion about race — such as Bruce Norris's Pulitzer-winning play "Clybourne Park," set alternately in 1959 and 2009, about a once-white, then-black, and now-gentrifying Chicago neighborhood — barely register on mainstream radar screens. And then there's Spike Lee, whose 1989 film "Do the Right Thing" remains the most lacerating portrait of American racial tension ever made. He hasn't directed a feature since 2008's "Miracle at St. Anna," because — he recently told Charlie Rose — he can't get financing for any of his projects in development, among them a biopic about Jackie Robinson.

In late June, I invited six women to a screening of "The Help" — members of an all-female book club that meets occasionally in one another's homes in Arlington and Fort Worth. "The Help," they told me, was one of their favorite books — a title that every club member adored. Since so much of the book's popularity is due to clubs just like this one, I was curious to hear more of their reactions.

Over drinks before the movie, they raised a number of good points in defense of "The Help." One woman noted that the distinction between "The Help" and "The Blind Side" is that the former gives voice to its black characters, whereas in "The Blind Side," Michael Oher remains mumbling and inchoate. Another of the women made what I thought was a salient comparison to "Steel Magnolias": Like that 1989 word-of-mouth classic, "The Help" mostly relegates the male characters to the sidelines and instead focuses on the ways women of different generations interact. That's no minor achievement in an age when boys rule the bestseller lists — the only books that sold more than Stockett's in 2009 and 2010 were by Stieg Larsson, John Grisham and Dan Brown — and the box office.

We headed into the theater to watch the film. Every seat was filled. The audience was overwhelmingly female, but divided evenly along racial lines — black, white and Hispanic. The movie played as well as any I've ever seen in a theater: Huge laughs, audible sobs, rapturous applause at the end.

I could respect the button-pushing savvy of the narrative, but I couldn't help but feel, all over again, that "The Help" blithely smoothes over its roughest edges. It touches upon the horrors black women suffered in the South in the 1960s but places those horrors safely in the past. The most vivid passages from the book and the movie are the scenes of broad comedy (Minny serving her famous "chocolate pie" to Hilly) or sentimental triumph (Aibileen receiving a copy of Skeeter's book signed by every member of her church).

Maybe it's a little too much to expect such rigor from popular entertainment. Maybe, with a black president in the Oval Office, a lot of people think the final chapter of the civil-rights movement has been written — and thus the dialogue does not need to carry forth.

But at a point in American history still so strangely unsettled — when a black man can win the highest office in the land and yet still be derided by racial slurs, when white resentment over affirmative-action programs continues to result in high-profile Supreme Court cases, when an Alabama-based publisher sets off a firestorm of controversy by removing the "n-word" from "Huckleberry Finn" — what we need are works that offer attentive and complicated visions of race relations; works that dare to be discomfiting.

"The Help," however popular, just keeps us stuck in the past. When the film is over, we pat ourselves on the back and say, "Look how far we've come." When we should instead be looking in the mirror and saying, "We still have so much further to go."

© 2011 Knoxville.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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