It’s been interesting watching the reaction to “The Help” this week. The movie, like the best-selling novel that spawned it, is a big slick slice of cheese anchored by some very strong performances, and I liked it well enough when I reviewed it.
I’ve been told repeatedly, both directly and through the media, though, that it is inappropriate to like the movie, and that it is insulting to both the reality of the civil rights movement and to the performers that are asked to play the maids in the film. I’ve been told that these stories are only valid if told by black filmmakers. Never mind that most young black filmmakers today have as much direct experience of the South of the ’60s as I do… skin color is obviously the primary qualifier for what stories we are allowed to tell, right?
I think the entire debate is wrong-headed, frankly. I think any time people start telling other people what stories they can or can’t tell, it’s ridiculous. Do I think there is a long history of telling significant stories about other cultures or ethnicity through a white American filter? Sure. Absolutely. I think when you make a film like “Ghost Of Mississippi” about a real-life figure as remarkable as Medgar Evers and you tell it from the POV of a white lawyer, you have made a disastrous creative choice. I think when you make a film about Stephen Biko and you spend most of the running time dealing with the struggles of a white family to escape South Africa, you have missed the point.
But those movies also tanked quickly and vanished without much of a trace, and my feeling is that they were badly-told stories, and the marketplace rewarded them as such. “The Help,” no matter what racial prism you want to view it through, is told with energy and style, and it’s packed with good performances. It was not designed to be the end-all be-all statement on the struggle for equality in the ’60s, so beating up on it for what it doesn’t do seems ridiculous to me.
I am a firm believer that if someone feels underrepresented in film or television, there is only one way to fix that, and that’s by telling your own stories. And, yes, I’m well aware of just how hard that is, but the alternative is just empty scolding, and it accomplishes nothing. Instead, if you feel like there’s a story that has to be told, find a way and tell it. I love Viola Davis as a performer, and when I interviewed her for “Doubt,” I was struck by how strong a presence she has in a room. I got the feeling right away that she is a force to be reckoned with. She’s been doing press for “The Help,” and she’s been talking about the sorts of roles she wishes she was offered, the sorts of roles that Hollywood never writes for people like her.
And sure enough, she’s doing something about it.
I have not read Ann Weisgarber’s novel “The Personal History Of Rachel DuPree,” but it sounds good. DuPree leaves her home in early 20th-century Chicago to marry a rancher in South Dakota, and the novel charts generations of the struggle that follows. It’s described as a sprawling epic story of what life was like for black pioneers, and if you check the official website for the novel, Davis is actually quoted there, calling it a “John Ford movie with black people.”
Davis has her own production company with her husband, and they’re working to close the deal for the book rights now. If this comes together, it sounds like a tremendous role for Davis. I’m glad to see her developing material that is important to her, as I am with any performer. But in this case, I’m curious to see if the same people who are so worked up about “The Help” and the “right” of Kathryn Stockett and Tate Taylor to tell that story bend over backwards in the other direction, no matter what the eventual quality of the film, to praise “DuPree.” After all, most of them haven’t read or seen “The Help,” so their entire reaction is based on skin color.
Interesting how that works.
“The Help” is in theaters now, and I look forward to updating you on the progress of “The Personal History Of Rachel DuPree” if and when it gets off the ground.