American historical films are forever refighting old wars, congratulating themselves for being on the right side, and encouraging viewers to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side, too. They view the war from the general's tent up on a distant hill and imagine that they're right in the thick of it. That's how Paul Haggis' "Crash" swept the Oscars in 2006 -- by serving up a contemporary story of Los Angelenos who said and did brazenly racist things in public constantly, as if it were 1967 and everyone was wearing love beads, Afros and hard hats. The characters seemed crude and primitive, lacking in self-awareness, unenlightened; this made them easy to label, judge and dismiss. A variation on this strategy has enabled another race drama, "The Help," to become an instant hit, a likely Oscar contender, and yet another reminder that when mainstream cinema depicts discrimination, it tends to ask the same two questions: "How did this affect white people?" and "Aren't you glad you're not bigoted like the creeps in this movie?"
[. . .]
This isn't the story of beleaguered domestics standing up for themselves during a time of American apartheid. It's the story of a perky proto-feminist writer (Emma Stone's "Skeeter" Phelan) cajoling black women into standing up for themselves by telling her their stories and letting her publish them in book form. It's about what a good-hearted and tenacious person Skeeter is, and how lucky the maids are to have met her.
[. . .]
There was no real-life book similar to Skeeter's magnum opus; it's a fictional flourish that feels like a college-educated white liberal's wish-fulfillment fantasy of how she would have conducted herself had she been time-warped back to the civil rights era. I wouldn't have just stood by and let it happen. I would have done something! Something brave!
[. . .]
And so, yet again, for what seems like the zillionth time, a heart-tugging Hollywood film transforms a harrowing and magnificent period of African-American life into a story of once-blinkered white people becoming enlightened. The black characters' struggles are sensitively rendered, magnificently acted, and sometimes heartbreaking sideshows. Although Viola Davis' subtle performance anchors the movie, and will likely earn this perpetually underrated actress an Oscar nomination, giving Aibileen the movie's voice-over won't fool anybody. This is Skeeter's movie. She's the one who sets the plot in motion. Without her youthful idealism, these downtrodden black women would have continued to suffer in silence.
This sort of thing just keeps happening and happening and happening,
[. . .]
I've heard somewhat sheepish arguments to the effect that the white folks' stories take center stage in these films because they're more clearly dramatic. Why? Well, you see, it's because drama -- commercial mainstream drama, anyway -- is about people learning, changing and growing, and the non-white characters' stories are less dramatic because they already know discrimination is bad, which means their "arcs" are inherently less interesting. No, I promise you, some moviemakers really do think this way. The only proper response to this kind of thinking is to smack one's forehead -- or better yet, the filmmaker's -- with a tack hammer. At least it's offered timidly and rarely, and as a commercial rather than an artistic defense.
Even more problematic is the overriding sense -- conveyed not just in "The Help," but in so many historical movies -- that the era being depicted is tucked safely away in the past, a closed chapter, and the collective insanity that gripped society has dissipated thanks to the efforts of good-hearted people like you, the viewer.
It is inconceivable that any viewer of any race, age or gender could look at the bigoted, greedy, petty, pinch-faced shrews who torment poor Aibileen and her colleagues and think, "That person reminds me of myself," or "I know somebody like that." They're not fully rounded, likable people who happen to have a few revolting qualities, and who therefore complicate our reactions. They're paper targets that the film can pepper with rhetorical buckshot.
[. . .]
It might not be a bad idea for filmmakers to lay off the big, tried-and-true historical topics for a while -- civil rights, slavery, the Holocaust, America's righteous participation in World War II, the moral tragedy of Vietnam -- and deal with more recent eras. I'm not suggesting anything radical. I mean "something that happened 20 years ago as opposed to 50." Movies about actual recent history -- 9/11, Iraq, the financial meltdown, the dog-whistle racism of 21st-century America -- tend to bomb.
Better yet, filmmakers could deal with controversial subjects by way of metaphor or parable. This sounds like a dodge, but it could be liberating. And it couldn't possibly yield a more tepid movie than "The Help." As engrossing as it is, it's still a white liberal fantasy in historical drag -- "Crash" with smiles and hugs. (Matt Zoller-Seitz, “Why Hollywood keeps whitewashing the past,” Salon, 12 August 2011)
So let's tell it straight? But what if this gets the story all wrong too?
Re: And so, yet again, for what seems like the zillionth time, a heart-tugging Hollywood film transforms a harrowing and magnificent period of African-American life into a story of once-blinkered white people becoming enlightened.
The period was actually, indisputably, a harrowing and magnificent (epic?) period of African-American life? Good thing, because if Hollywood ever takes up your call and gets real, it wouldn't have presented itself with the dreadful problem of not showing much anything of interest, let alone of magnificence!, for their (i.e., Southern blacks) just being relentlessly unconscionably hated upon and abused. There's this simple, idiotic myth/assumption that when whites attack another culture, project their own unwanted demons onto some Other for purposes of punishing and destroying it, that this Other was more spiritually pure, psychologically sane, less mad, hateful, and more community-oriented and naturally benefactory than their oppressors. The only thing I know for sure when a group is being oppressed is that it shows the illness of the persecutor and that it must be stopped; it doesn't tell me damn all about the oppressed. They could have been better, even vastly so, as was the case with the Jews in Nazi Germany, who were possessed of genuinely more affective and tolerant child-rearing inclinations than their punitive, indulgence and progress-fearing German "brethren," but nothing discounts that they may have been even worse.
Would this be a subject matter/consideration you'd be okay with Hollywood tackling in regards to the South, Matt? A film that shows whites for what they were, and how the blacks may have been also (that they were all a mess, with it being best to have lived in the North where you'd find at least some who were civilized)? Or are you at last, even after all your preference for nuance and distaste for the impossibilities of the purely good or simply evil, still stuck with a silly default defense of primitivism and the folk, very much ready to destroy anyone who'd poke holes at your own maddingly intractable mythology, allowed to persist on and on, not in the least bit for its claim on truth but because its espousers know that no one but a purely evil person who must be hunted down and destroyed for the good of all would take them to task on it? Is the road you've taken really so very, very uphill or hard?
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For Matt the wall that blocks all further forward progress, all further larger public engagement with the real and trespasses into exciting unexplored possibilities of who we might become, is white people's need to enslaven all narratives to their need to feel important. It's gotten as far as they (i.e., white people) can allow. Bit by bit, previously simply demonized Others have long not just been exempt from demonization, but even granted memorable roles for supporting actor/actress nomination. But they cannot be made primary to white protoganists, for we've collectively learned we need these protagonists kept essentially as they are – enfranchised, the primary heroes -- to keep ourselves feeling sexy and vital.
The problem for me is that Matt's own heroism is the one that seems most unfairly protected from deconstruction. What Matt will never permit you to consider without being made to feel grossly punishment-worthy for it, is that disenfranchised people may not be empowered to show any of the traits we ought rightly to consider ennobling or heroic. He wouldn't have you consider that if you focussed purely on the blacks that all you would mostly see is the less pretty things that happen to people after suffering ongoing abuse: that you wouldn't just discover how awful torture is, but that suffering from whole-scale torture makes a people, though absolutely worthy of essential respect, still truly hard to like, leaving them, not so much with assertive, pronounced, striking and nobly defiant souls, but near bereft of all such entirely.
He certainly wouldn't have you consider that black culture might not have been so pretty to begin with, even before the in-fact truly demon-haunted, unloved and unevolved whites set themselves upon them. If you consider any of this, Matt'll show no nuance in IDing you as evil, for to him your primary use is to ensure that he himself is never in the end mistaken for being evil himself. Nothing of the mass-bucking/disregarding, controversial things he says can suggest a core lack of empathy or sympathy, because of how clearly he distinguishes himself from you indisputable monsters. Making clear your inarguable evilness/villainy keeps him within the pale, bravely looking like he might even risk being horribly misunderstood to keep himself -- and hopefully thereby some of us -- at the forefront of reality exploration/confrontation. That is, Matt’s own kind of narrative needs, for their actually also too very much being privileged over bare truth, however much parading as the very opposite, are to me what is at risk of keeping us all from stretching out into unfamiliar, more discomforting territory.