Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Moral Dilemma: The Help

By now I'm sure most all of you have heard the 'controversy' rummaging around this latest installment in the much beloved by white people sub-genre of "well off white people learn the real world for black people." Now I haven't seen the film, so whether or not it skirts the serious subject matter at hand is a rather mute point to me. What I am intrigued by is the potential double standard that is derived from a film like this. You see, let's be honest - on the whole actresses aren't exactly given premium roles day in and day out. Especially not black actresses who are generally forced to leave their Oscar campaigns in the hands of a role that is statistically likely to be a "poor and/or dumb southern woman" (sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton optional).

So, I started to think about a scenario. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that we all agree that The Help sugar coats the racism and segregation in favor of a more "audience friendly" (*wink wink*) picture. Here's the question - should black actresses take on a potential Oscar role even though it very well may undermine an important segment of their own cultural history? My answer: yes.

Now I admit all would be for best if this sort of gerrymandering of real world political and sociological issues wasn't deemed necessary by on high. Unfortunately the monetary forces that be seem to suggest that lots of people either don't want to, or simply refuse to pay to deal with some of the issues that have shaped today. Especially when you factor in that the most vocal white commentators to speak out on racial issues these days are of the ilk that make Edward Norton's mirror driven 25 Hours rant seem empathetic towards his fellow man. So why do I think films like this, no matter how grueling and frustrating they may be for those of us who wish we as a society could man up and directly address the root concerns? Simple: Open a dialogue.

You don't get to home plate without reaching a few bases and sometimes to get moving at all you just have to bunt - there my one sports analogy as required by the international blogging association done and done. What I mean to say is this: if you really want to tackle the deep issues, you've got to start somewhere. And more often than not you end up starting off a great deal farther than you'd ever really like to. In today's turbulent "if you're not with me you're against me" environment baby steps can seem the equivalent of moving an entire planet when it comes to bringing people to light on serious issues that don't conform to their narrow vision of the world.

So where does Hollywood's obligation to sweep in and start offering competitive roles to black actresses come in? That's the sticky part. Unless you can convince Hollywood there's money to be had, they're generally fine with letting black actresses wonder aimlessly in the abyss of Tyler Perry films and BET made for TV movies and television shows that have the crossover value of a USA professional Cricket league. Not necessarily their fault, but once the social stigma is there it's hard to battle back against perception, regardless of the number of facts one presents.

Granted that's kind of Hollywood's stance on just about every social issue. But I think there is an intermediary solution. In recent years what it has taken to win an Oscar isn't the backing of a major Hollywood studio, it's the festivals and a solid mid-level studio willing to tuck in a cool $15 million. The production budget for the last 3 Best Picture winners equates to $45 million - $15 million a piece - per Box Office Mojo, proving you don't need mainstream Hollywood to buy into what you're doing to make an impact. And with films like The Help, also made relatively on the cheap at $25 million, I wouldn't be surprised if these mid-range studios were lining up around the block for another film vaguely like it to invest in. And if, by some chance, we can get that next wave of films to go just a little deeper, then who knows how far it can go in the end?

6 better thoughts:

Alan said...

You're right. I'm the first to say that I loved this movie, but it seems to me that there are some black actresses who have made careers out of movies that sugar coat racism in the past and present. Cicely Tyson, as I recall, is one of them, and she does make an appearance here.

Interesting thought. I may mentally chew on this more and be back.

Candice Frederick said...

sigh. it's tough for black actresses. they have performances that aren't downtrodden, and no one even pays them any mind. but as soon as they do the more stereotypical Hollywood role that Hollywood wants to see them in, they get praised for it. it's a catch 22. of course ii'm sure viola davis and octavia spencer were fantastic in this, but it perpetuates the long-standing perception of black roles in Hollywood. it's not about these4 performances not being great (they are), it's about also recognizing all the great work they do that aren't the downtrodden maid/slave roles. sigh.

Castor said...

Well there isn't that role for actresses to begin with. So it's even tougher for African-American actresses to make a mark. I haven't seen The Help but while it has raised some eyebrows, it's nothing overly blatant IMO so these kind of roles are totally acceptable for a Viola Davis to take on.

Univarn said...

@Alan Glad I gave you something to stew on for a while.

@Candice I know Black actresses get the short end of the pole by far and wide when it comes to quality roles with character and depth. The problem I most often have is that the other movies that feature them in prominent roles just don't hit the major - or even my local - indie theaters and I never hear a word about them.

@Castor I don't deny they're quality roles, and that the cast are more than capable of handling them, but I kind of wish they were roles without all this controversy.

Red said...

With these type of films, there's always going to be controversy, though. If they didn't sugarcoat anything in this film, and went with a more in-your-face authentic interpretation, the media would then spin it as evil and full hatred. Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" is the perfect example of this (not taking into consideration his drunken rants about hating Jews, of course).

Like others have said, strong roles for females in general aren't all that available.

I haven't read anything about her reaction to the film, but I'm going to go ahead and make a wild guess that a woman with as much artistic talent as Viola Davis doesn't just simply takes any random role nowadays without reading through the script first. Nobody forced her to make this movie, and if she felt comfortable portraying this role in such a manner, I don't understand all the backlash.

Jess said...

I agree with the sentiment (though I will knock you for not having the file first - choose another film on which to hang you hat that you've actually seen).

As long as they're not perpetuating stereotypes and creating characters (accurate or not) that have depth and authenticity (which these characters - white and black seem to have) then I think a small step forward is better than any step backward.

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