Earlier this month when Academy award winner Viola Davis featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, it became part of history. The Fences actor had turned her back and the defiance in her posture was further cemented by her averted gaze. But what truly contributed in making the picture a sensational moment, a part of the change the world is resolving to bring about was the gaze directed at her. With the current issue, Dario Calmese became the first Black photographer whose work appeared on the magazine cover. This authenticity percolated in the earnest and perceptive interview that followed where the actor spoke on a range of topics– wanting to participate in the ongoing protests against George Floyd’s untimely and brutal death by police, helplessness in being unable to do so, quiet reflection on her work, the inequitable distribution of opportunities that exist in the industry determined by colour, and regret of being part of the 2011 film, The Help, arguably one of the celebrated films in her oeuvre.
“There’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help. But there’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed myself, and my people, because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth],” are her exact words. This, however, is not the first time the actor expressed her remorse in being part of the adaption of Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel. In 2018, during an interview with The New York Times, when asked if she regretted passing on a role, she had reshaped the question and answered the role she did and regretted: Aibileen Clark from The Help. “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard,” she had maintained. The answer made headlines then just as it did now.
— Viola Davis (@violadavis) July 14, 2020
Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, the period film is located at the time of the civil rights movement, providing a snapshot of the definite demarcations that existed between white and the black people at the time and the great unrest that followed in attempts to blur it. Narrated by Clark (Viola Davis), it centres around black women who were employed as help in Jackson at that time, and chronicles the hostility with which they were treated by their employers, down to being viewed as a source of diseases and given separate bathrooms. The narrative unfolds from the perspective of three characters — Aibileen Clark, Minny Jackson (both maids and essayed by Davis and Octavia Spencer, respectively) and Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone), the single, Left-leaning white woman who eventually helps in making their voices heard through the book she writes titled, The Help. On the surface then the film directed by Tate Taylor withholds a premise that seemingly intends to critique the said lack of representation and voice.
But a little probing and a barrage of criticism that have followed the film since 2011 testify the truth in Davis’ statement. Even though fashioned as a narrative vehicle for the suppressed, the film does little or nothing for those oppressed. Narrated by Clark, it is not her story nor does it belong to Jackson. It is the white woman, Phelan’s story; her narrative arc from being entrapped in other’s opinions to finding her own voice befits a protagonist. She might seem to be the conduit between the maids and the world but eventually like all her counterparts, she ends up receiving services from them and inching closer to her dream of becoming a writer. If anyone gains any emancipation, it is the white woman.
The film not just suffers from the literal white (wo)man’s burden but also unfolds from a gaze that constantly feels distant from the subjects. It feels too white. Almost all instances of violence are pushed to the periphery, outside the frame. When Jackson is hit by her husband, the violence is dulled by making us hear it — like a white person would. In another instance when American civil rights activist Medgar Evers is murdered, it is reduced to a news bulletin.
But the main problem with a film like The Help resides in its messaging glossing over its shortcomings, shielding the film in the process. Posited at a time when the present is increasingly burdened with the realisation of being part of history and lived-in history is being constantly remoulded, Taylor’s film in all probability will fall through the cracks of change and evade the brand of criticism films like The Gone With The Wind is being subjected to with more ferocity and rightly so.
John Ridley, the screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, in a persuasive essay in the Los Angeles Times recently argued why Victor Fleming’s film should be taken down from HBO Max. He had maintained that the film not just refused to acknowledge the horror of slavery but exalted the time it was set in. What followed was it being taken down to be restored again with disclaimers acknowledging the problem. Gone With The Wind, however, fundamentally revolved around its protagonist Scarlett O’ Hara, her rite of passage and her journey. The film might have not have held up well in the course of time but it does not betray its intent. The Help, on the other hand, does. Enclosing a premise that intends to make the oppressed voices heard, it refuses to listen or relay. Unlike the 1939 film, it does not sideline the slaves in the narrative. Instead, it crafts its narrative around them but resists including them. It alienates them from their own stories. The betrayal is more devastating here, more complete.
These limitations, racism of another kind, are hidden behind the apparent awareness and empathy the film projects. Even though belated awareness has afflicted it — this year Bryce Dallas Howard shared she wouldn’t work in The Help if it was made today — the discourse around racial representation in films will continue regarding it even if as a footnote. Its legacy remains largely uncomplicated. This is because The Help tells the story the White Man wants to hear to feel better about themselves– of being burdened with guilt and eventually rescuing. It is a story that he tells himself. The Help helps them. An evidence of the same was witnessed when Taylor’s film became one of the most popular titles on Netflix last month. This, for some, was like partaking in the protests.
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