Let me say this up front and clearly. The Help is a great movie. What it says about race relations in the South is not only true about 1963; it is still true in only slightly subtler form in pockets of society today. Viola Davis was brilliant and deserves an Oscar. If you haven’t seen The Help, do so right away.
But something bothered me. The book is about a Black perspective on White culture. The movie includes that. But, compared to the book, the movie is about a White perspective on Black people and their perspective on White culture. The author, Skeeter, becomes a principal character instead of the teller of the tale. They did not adapt the book into a screenplay; so much as they wrote a screenplay about the white person writing the book. As one who loved the movie – but loved the book more – I just wonder what that is about. Was the book, The Help, too Black for an American audience, in the opinion of Hollywood – despite being a best seller?
The Entertainment Industry, more than the news media, tells us who we are. We see ourselves reflected in their eyes. What they think we will pay to see has a powerful influence on who we become. That’s what makes the change from the book to the screenplay troubling. The screenplay was good – but bleached.
I recently heard an NPR interview with the man who adapted the book Soul Surfer for the screen. The book is the memoir of Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack. Bethany tells the story of how her Christian faith empowered her to get back on the surfboard and become a professional champion surfer.
Well, that is a great story but a bit too Christian for the big screen. So what to do? Change the story of course. Her Christianity is acknowledged this way: The devastating injury causes her to doubt the existence of God. Her youth group sponsor shows up and tells her God had a purpose for sending the shark to chomp off her limb. (Not the most appealing of theologies – God using sharks as Manchurian candidates to cripple young people.) But her vague faith in something – influenced by Native Hawaiian animist religion – gives her the courage to make a comeback. They want to show that she had faith – but do not want to say what she believed or who she had faith in.
The screenwriter was amazingly candid in acknowledging his cynicism. There is a “faith based market.” So they wanted enough spirituality to appeal to that market – but did not want to be so Christian as to offend the secular audiences. Bethany could be spiritual, but not too religious.
I have two concerns: First, I am troubled by the censorship of my own beliefs. Second, the movie just isn’t true. I understand society is rather secular – but it is not as secular as Hollywood portrays it. For instance, Bethany Hamilton is a Christian, but Hollywood will acknowledge that truth only in hushed whispers. They would feel so much more at ease with her as a neo-pagan animist.
Thinking back over classic television series, there have been a few explicitly religious ones – very few. But did you ever wonder if Magnum P. I. went to church? How about the Partridge family? This isn’t new. There is no acknowlegement that faith is part of the lives of normal/ normative people. The Entertainment Industry has been portraying life as secular for a long time. They tell us who we are. We believe it. Then we become it.
I don’t necessarily want screenwriters to be our evangelists. It’s just that we are in the room. I am troubled that they are so embarrassed by our presence that they pretend we aren’t here. Do they think that if they ignore us long enough we will just go away? Do they think that Black voices cannot speak for themselves, but must be mediated through White translators or at least have a White person standing there giving them permission to speak? Only on occasion does the Entertainment Industry dare to hold a mirror up to the world. Most of the time they paint a picture of us instead – and the picture is a bleached, monochrome, religionless, raceless, political convictionless, generic American -- far less engaging and less human than the truth.
But for those who are offended by my criticism of The Help, let me reiterate: The Help is a great movie. What it says about race relations in the South is not only true about 1963; it is still true in only slightly subtler form in pockets of society today. Viola Davis was brilliant and deserves an Oscar. If you haven’t seen The Help, do so right away.