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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Are stories about racism automatically racist if told through the eyes of white characters?

The Help

I can’t post my review of The Help: I’m under embargo until the film opens here in the U.K. at the end of October. Which I’m finding very frustating, because I feel the need to respond to some of the accusations of racism that have been thrown at the movie.

There is, most notably, perhaps, the Association of Black Women Historians who’ve come out strongly against the film. From Movieline:

“Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers,” reads the statement. Among their complaints, the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) name the exaggerated “black” dialogue, the narrow depiction of African-American men, the lack of recognition of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the reduction of the region’s most terrible racists to a bunch of society women instead of, for example, members of the Ku Klux Klan.

(You can read the whole statement from the ABWH in this PDF.)

Anthony Kaufman’s ReelPolitik has this to say:

To make a film that purports to be about the struggles of black servitude that is actually just another tale about a white person’s empowerment is grossly irresponsible, from a political perspective, and kind of lame, from a narrative perspective.

It seems odd to call out this movie for not covering the entirety of the black experience in America in the 1960s when it is specifically designed as a narrow story, about the experiences of women — black and white — in one small town.

Yes, it is absolutely true that many, perhaps most Hollywood stories about racism and the experiences of black people in America are filtered through the eyes of white protagonists, very often to the detriment of the black characters in the story. There most definitely does need to be more stories with black central characters. The unpleasant stereotype of the “Magic Negro” character, who exists only to help white characters on their journeys, needs to go away.

But none of that applies to The Help, as far as I can see. There seems to be two protagonists: the white wannabe journalist played by Emma Stone and the black maid whose experience she wants to write about played by Viola Davis. There is no Magic Negro. There is an attempt to portray racism as something that doesn’t affect only blacks but whites as well… not to the same degree, of course, but here we see racism in this place and time as a complex cultural web that demanded complicity from white women, who were constrained in their limited (if much more comfortable and comparatively privileged) position, and required bravery from white women to challenge. I don’t see how to tell a story about black maids in this place and time without white characters.

That said, who am I to challenge the viewpoint of the Association of Black Women Historians? If some black women think The Help is racist, aren’t I just demonstrating my own white privilege by insisting that it isn’t?

What do you think? Are stories about racism automatically racist if told through the eyes of white characters? Not just in the case of The Help — though if you’ve seen it, feel free to comment on it specifically — but in general.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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