I finally saw The Help. As it happens, I watched it in a theater with a nearly 100% African-American audience, many of whom clapped enthusiastically at the end. I found it unavoidably moving, too. As far as I can tell, the most vehement political criticism of this film comes from people who haven’t seen it. This is not another film in which a pretty and privileged white woman rescues voiceless and powerless African-American women. The naïve young protagonist isn’t in a position to rescue anybody. None of the film’s characters believes anything different.

The most pronounced irony is that The Help‘s main African-American characters were individually realized. Meanwhile, the film’s white characters–except for the lead and one small child–were mainly crude caricatures. Indeed most of the young white women were depicted in fairly monstrous terms. (Hollywood homogenization goes beyond dialogue. The Help‘s black women reflected a realistic human diversity of shapes and sizes. Almost all the white women were played by alluring movie stars.)

The Help‘s female antagonists were depicted cruelly, stereotypically. Such allegorical denial of their humanity does a disservice to these perpetrators of racial injustice. Oddly enough, it does a disservice to their victims, too. It fails to engage the more nuanced reality of imperfect, sometimes sympathetic human beings who benefitted from the cast and class system around them, and who thus generally found a way to make their uneasy peace with it. In real life, even in 1963 Mississippi, many whites harbored complicated views regarding what they might have called race relations. They held especially complicated views towards the particular African-Americans who raised them and their children, who cared for their elderly parents, with whom they maintained intimate ties, often over many years.

Segregation, even in Mississippi’s vicious Apartheid form, was practiced by real human beings whose lives were only partly defined by the injustices that jump out at us. In the light of history, one must conclude that the great majority of white Mississipians perpetrated a monstrous crime. Of course, they didn’t see things this way. People seldom do.

We can’t recognize such evil until we view it in recognizable human form, practiced by basically decent, though weak and unimaginative people much like ourselves. The southern belles depicted in this film had the bad moral luck to live in that particular state and that particular time. Would we have done better? That’s the unasked question in this worthy and moving, but ultimately complacent film.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.