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Commentary, Film Studies, Movies, Oscars

When Historians Become Film Critics

I’m about to do something profoundly stupid: I’m going to criticize certain parts of a statement issued by the Association of Black Women Historians.

To put this is context: I’m a young, relatively privileged white guy, about to disagree with a group of esteemed scholars who have issued a statement rooted in their considerable knowledge of a particular subject.

You understand the scale of my stupidity.

(Fair warning: this is the most serious and academic article I’ve posted on the blog so far, so if you’re just looking for something light and fluffy, this isn’t it. I promise to write something ridiculous soon! My last post was mostly about Showgirls, after all…)

The statement in question concerns The Help, a film that has generated a degree of controversy to go along

Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis

with its substantial popularity. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s the fictitious story of a young white female reporter (played by Emma Stone) who helps a group of female African-American domestic workers tell their stories of the hardships they face working in the Jim Crow South. Stone’s character, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, writes a book based on the statements of the African-American women, and it goes on to achieve great popularity (though it sadly does little to improve the conditions under which the domestic workers toil). Several of the actresses in the film turn in phenomenal performances, including Octavia Spencer (who just won a Golden Globe for her role as Minny Jackson, a maid) and the great Viola Davis (who is a stone-cold lock for an Oscar nomination for her role as Aibileen Clark, the main housekeeper profiled in the story).

For the sake of completeness, here’s a link to the statement written by Ida E. Jones, Assistant Curator at Howard University and the National Director of the ABWH. I encourage you to read it now, both because of its importance and the fact that you won’t understand the rest of my article without it!

Welcome back.

A bit more personal context before getting to the heart of the matter. First off, it’s important to note that the ABWH’s statement is intended to address perceived inaccuracies present in both the film version of The Help and the book upon which it was based. I haven’t read the book, so for all I know their statements may be 100% accurate in that regard. Indeed, the book was written solely by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman, and while the film was directed by a white man (Tate Taylor), the collaborative nature of filmmaking and the large number of African-American cast members lead me to believe that there was much more African-American input into the film than the novel. My analysis is limited to the ABWH’s arguments as they relate to the film.

Also, I actually happen to have something of a background in American (and African-American) history. My first degree included a minor in American History, and throughout my academic career I have taken several courses dealing with the African-American experience. In no way do I intend to compare my credentials with the esteemed scholars in the ABWH, nor do I claim to be anything close to an expert in the field; I merely wish to note it in the interest of total disclosure. Indeed, my problems with the ABWH’s statement have relatively little to do with the validity of the historical facts Dr. Jones recites (and to be sure, the facts are largely accurate), but are instead rooted in the general trend of historians and other interest groups demanding that films more accurately reflect these types of historical facts. My arguments come solely from my perspective as a film student, and it is on these grounds that I believe the ABWH to be misguided.

As an avid follower of all manner of film news, I had read the ABWH’s statement before I saw The Help. I found it disturbing; many times before have I seen films that exploit black stereotypes, and I fully expected to hate the film as a result. But here’s the strange thing: I wound up liking the movie a lot. I couldn’t believe that the members of the ABWH had seen the same film as me.

The first inaccuracies present in the ABWH’s statement have to do with their characterization of elements of the film’s plot and characters. Dr. Jones addresses the depiction of black domestic servants in the film as such:

The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.”

Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) from GONE WITH THE WIND

The Mammy figure has a long and shameful history in cinema, including most notably its presence in arguably the most popular film of all time, Gone with the Wind (1939), a movie that seems more and more racist every year. I encourage you to view the following clip from Spike Lee’s excellent film Bamboozled (2000); it’s a montage of many instances of racism present in Hollywood films throughout the years, including scenes featuring some of the most famous white actors of their day, and it shows several examples of the Mammy stereotype:

I have no shame in admitting that I literally shed a tear the first time I saw that montage, during a class on Spike Lee I took in film school.

Getting back to the ABWH’s claims, I disagree that The Help resurrects the figure of Mammy. Taking their description point by point, the servants in the film are not shown to be “loyal, contented caretakers of whites.” Quite the opposite is true, in fact; the sole reason the women in the movie participate in the writing of Skeeter’s book is because of their dissatisfaction with the horrendous treatment they receive from the white homeowners. Stating that the film indicates a nostalgia for the Jim Crow era is unsubstantiated both by the content of the film and the reaction of audiences to it; it’s obvious that the racist white homeowners are the villains of the film, as they should be, and that audiences are heartbroken that the systemic prejudice against the African-American women in the film does not allow them to improve their standing in life significantly. (Anecdotally, I’ve heard from several friends that the solemn ending of the film has driven them to tears.)

The ABWH’s statement continues by focusing on the “over-exaggerated ‘black’ dialect” present in the film, saying that it represents “an irreverent depiction of black vernacular.” As someone with relatively limited knowledge of the historical African-American vernacular, I happily yield to the ABWH’s expertise in these matters. Towards the end of the statement, however, Dr. Jones writes that “[the members of the ABWH] respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film” and that the statement “is in no way a criticism of their talent.” I find these assertions to be incompatible with their criticism of the dialect present in the picture. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the two primary African-American actresses in the film, are universally admired for their talents; I have no doubt they both spent considerable time and energy making sure that their accents in the film were just right. In an interview available on this web site, Viola Davis explains that she wanted the voice of Aibileen to be “accessible […] yet authentic” and not “too heavy-handed,” and in an interview hereOctavia Spencer notes that she based her accent in the film on actual members of her family who are old enough to have lived through that time period. If the ABWH insists on criticizing the dialect presented in the film as being ahistorical and irreverent, they must necessarily also criticize the performances of the actresses themselves, who adopted these accents based on their own research, experience, and expertise. You can’t have it both ways.

Octavia Spencer, Tate Taylor, and Emma Stone

(Incidentally, I reject the possible counter-argument that the actresses were encouraged to take on these exaggerated accents at the request of either the director or the original writer of the book. For one, it runs contrary to their status as strong black women who are eminently capable of doing their own research, and furthermore, Octavia Spencer states in the aforementioned interview that she is close friends with both Kathryn Stockett and Tate Taylor.) It seems to me that this incongruity in the ABWH’s statement betrays a lack of understanding about both the acting process and the dynamics involved in making a film.

Another claim presented by the ABWH has to do with the film’s depiction of black male characters, claiming that it depicts them as “drunkards, abusing, and absent.” Absent is entirely correct, because first and foremost this is a film about women – the white women who stayed at home and the African-American women who worked for them. There are only a handful of vaguely prominent African-American male characters in the film, including a young man working at a drug store (played by the glorious Nelsan Ellis, of True Blood fame), a preacher, and Minny’s husband. Of the three, only Minny’s husband is shown to be physically and mentally abusive, and he is never actually depicted on-screen; instead, we learn about him from Minny’s reactions and by hearing him from off-screen. On the other hand, Henry, the waiter at the drug store, is shown to be nothing but courteous and helpful, and the preacher is, as one would expect, a pillar of strength for the local African-American community. In statistical terms, the ABWH’s claim suffers from a small sample size; because of the nature of the story, there are very few male characters (African-American or white) and the presence of one abusive character need not be construed as a condemnation of all African-American males of that period, as the other characters in the film prove. Overall, it seems illogical to criticize the absence of African-American men in a film that focuses almost exclusively on the power dynamics at play in the home between women while men were away.

The final inaccuracy I see in ABWH’s argument has to do with their description of the roles white female characters play in the film. Dr. Jones writes that rather than being a story about black women, The Help is instead “the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist,” referring to Emma Stone’s character. While Skeeter does indeed play a prominent role in the story, Viola Davis’ role in no less significant, and if anything one might say that they’re BOTH the main character of the film. (And in fact, the film both begins and ends with a shot of Aibileen, not Skeeter.) The issue is largely one of personal interpretation and semantics, but I believe that it is a gross oversimplification to say that the main thrust of the film’s story is solely Skeeter’s.

Throughout their statement, the ABWH makes several other claims: that the film depicts African-American women as being asexual, that it fails to address the threat of sexual assault that black women of that era often lived under, that it doesn’t include a context befitting the great history of the Civil Rights movement, and that it portrays white society women as being “the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi.” While these claims are all largely accurate, they veer close to prescription rather than description; they criticize the film based on what they feel it should be rather than what it is. This, in my view, is a dangerous trend that is not limited to the ABWH (or, indeed, to historians) but is evident in the reception of several other films in recent years.

David Fincher: Director of ZODIAC and THE SOCIAL NETWORK.

Two of David Fincher’s recent films have elicited similar controversies: 2007’s Zodiac and 2010’s The Social Network. Zodiac depicts the hunt for the real-life serial killer that terrorized the Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 70s, and was adapted from a pair of books by true crime writer Robert Graysmith, who worked at the San Francisco Chronicle as a cartoonist at the time of the Zodiac murders. The books, and consequently the movie, depict a protagonist (Graysmith himself, played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal) who is convinced that a man named Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac Killer. In reality, DNA has all but ruled out his candidacy, and most Zodiac experts agree that the Zodiac was likely someone else. This has led to criticism of the film as being historically inaccurate. (Here’s a scene-by-scene analysis of the perceived inaccuracies in the film, written by a Zodiac case enthusiast and appropriately entitled “Fact vs. Fincher.”) In the case of The Social Network, Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin came under fire for the inaccuracies in their retelling of the creation of Facebook and the life of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Here’s an article that includes a lengthy quote from Zuckerberg himself addressing the controversy.) In both of these examples, and in the case of The Help, groups of experts – the Zodiac researchers, people associated with Facebook, and the ABWH – have come forward to express their dissatisfaction with the final cinematic product while ignoring many of the realities of filmmaking. For people like David Fincher and the creative team behind The Help, telling a good story is the end goal. While a reasonable degree of historical accuracy is necessary, especially given the sensitive subject matter in The Help, it is utterly impossible for a film to be all things to all people. Simply put, The Help isn’t a film about the KKK and the White Citizens Council, just as Zodiac isn’t a film about somebody else’s idea of who the Zodiac Killer was and The Social Network isn’t a film about a bunch of geeks sitting at their keyboards for hours on end. They each have a specific goal, and for every minute of film spent learning about the broader historical context of Mississippi in the 1960s, we’d have one less minute of time to get to know Aibileen and Minny in all of their complexities. These are tough decisions (hey, there’s a reason directors get paid a ton of dough!), but they are a necessary evil.

If there’s one main reason I felt inspired to write this article, it’s this: that while the ABWH and other groups are more than free to express their opinions, filmmakers must also be given some leeway in the struggle for their art. If every film were 100% historically accurate, they’d all be documentaries. At some point, a deluge of facts has to give way to a compelling story; context has to give way to narrative. The many inaccuracies and incongruities present in the ABWH’s statement are understandable given the organization’s focus on the study of history rather than the study of film, but I believe that their arguments would be significantly strengthened by sticking to the historical facts instead of wading into the world of film criticism.

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For a very different take on The Help, check out this blog.

And go back and read all of that Octavia Spencer interview I mentioned. It’s got all sorts of interesting details about the film and her performance (and for what it’s worth, it’s pretty clear that she’s on my side of this divergence of opinion). She also touches on the generational divide, which I suspect might be at the heart of a lot of the disagreements about the film.

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About A.J. Simpson

Creator and moderator of I Wonder if You Wonder.

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