Emma Stone and 'The Help': Does liking this movie make you racist?

Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer, star in ‘The Help,’ a film about black people made by white people. Perhaps inevitably, the Civil Rights-era drama set in Mississippi has been criticized for racism.

Dale Robinette/Disney/AP/File
From (l.), Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, and Viola Davis star in 'The Help.' Some have accused the film of racism.

The Help’ features galvanizing performances by Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and breakout newcomer Emma Stone. It is a film about black people made by white people. Perhaps inevitably, charges of historical inaccuracy and even racism have been leveled at the well-meaning Civil Rights-era drama about privileged white Southerners and the African-American nannies who take care of them.

Made for $25 million, ‘The Help’ earned back its costs and then some in its opening weekend of Aug. 12 to 14, coming in at number two. The film, propelled by the success the 2009 bestselling novel from which it was adapted, has ignited controversy for everything from the dialect of its black maids to the watered-down dangers they face (the film primarily depicts ‘Mean Girls’-style humiliation, not rape and lynching).

“What I don’t understand is what 3 million people still find fascinating about the stories of black women in the most subservient positions,” Tonya Pendleton wrote for BlackAmericaWeb.com.

In defense of his film, director and screenwriter Tate Turner told TheGrio.com, “Kathryn has said, she would never be equipped or interested in writing a historical, fictional account of the Civil Rights movement. It's just a story.” The consensus is that the story is a ripping yarn.

Written by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman raised in Mississippi by an African-American nanny, and directed by her white friend who has a similar background, ‘The Help’ delves into how black maids were treated in the 1960s. The story is told from the point of view of a crusading young white Mississippian journalist who seeks to expose the plight of persecuted black maids. Ms. Stockett, who grew up at a comfortable remove from the triumphs and tragedies of the Civil Rights era, used that storied time as a dynamic backdrop to channel her own feelings about her beloved nanny Demetrie. The result was box office gold.

Maybe it is the comfort of having a white voice tell black history that has made ‘The Help’ resonate with white audiences, despite what Ms. Stockett told Alabama Live was its ‘risky subject matter.’

That uncomfortable fact of certain American lives – the black servant who cares for a white family – is rooted in slavery, and this relationship undoubtedly is a source of complicated and conflicted emotions both for the caregivers and their charges. For white people who grew up with black nannies, ‘The Help’ may strike a nostalgic chord and a yearning to reconnect with their caregivers, after having a good cry over the realization that the Demetries of the world have families of their own, hopes and dreams, and – central to the theme of ‘The Help’ – trials and tribulations at the hands of their employers.

But one can’t help but wonder what kind of book and film would have resulted if Demetrie had written her own version of ‘The Help.’ Or whether a biopic of African-American activists such as, say, Fannie Lou Hamer or Septima Poinsette Clark, would impel three million people to buy movie tickets.

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