I have given up on Hollywood producing any film about racism that is worth anything.  The demand that it must appeal to whites to be profitable skews any film.  Most often such films must have a white protagonist who learns about the effects of racism and whose story usually overshadows that of any people of color in the film. Not only must it have this “white gaze” it must present racism as something which an individual can overcome simply by not being racist one’s self. The “monster” must be reduced to something the individual can handle in order for the demands of the happy ending to be satisfied, individual success to be achieved, and order restored. I thus checked out the new movie “The Help” with few expectations to be entertained. While it has its flaws I was impressed by how much it put the maids’ story in the foreground. I expected that it would be just another “wasn’t racism hard for white people” story. It has its villains but racism is not only the work of “bad people”. Many others (both black and white,) accept it just as “what is.” Yes some of its characters are just stereotypes like the villain “Hilly” but good acting overcomes many of the limitations of the roles.  The four lead actresses, two black and two white, do excellent work to make their characters full blooded people. The parallelism between both white women and black women being caught in societal roles that constrain and belittle them is clearly made. Yet the hardship that white women heap on black women in their conformity to their roles is also firmly pointed out. At the end both one white woman and one black woman are able to make it out of their roles even though the differences in their off-screen economic futures are not discussed. The ending of the film satisfies the Hollywood requirements and produces the desired feel good effect.

My criticism is that racism is seen only as an individual thing (which can be confronted and overcome on an individual basis) rather than a social process which must be tackled on a societal scale. The movie’s individual acts of rebellion are childish, only temporarily satisfying and do not really change the social or economic positions of blacks and whites. The acts of individuals choosing a new life leave the system intact though they opt out. I have long made this argument to students.  Racism is not just an act of individual behavior that can be cured by purging that behavior in yourself. Of course we should not knowingly commit racist acts but even if every individual in the country had an overnight enlightenment against racism in their personal behavior, the United States would still be the most racist country on earth.  Racism has produced a political economy in which race has a major influence on class position, health care, education and opportunity. This is something Hollywood will probably never explore.  There are no easily identified villains and no one individual’s efforts (even an American Nelson Mandela’s) are going to produce the required happy ending. It is only painfully slow efforts by millions of people that is going to produce change if indeed it ever comes.

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2 Responses to “Hollywood on Racism”

  1. KB says:

    Thanks for sharing, Randy. I read the book in anticipation of the film’s release and found the text to be problematic but successful in its own right, that is, telling the story of a white woman’s coming of age in a racist society. I refuse to see the movie until some of the critiques die down. I want to be able to take it in on my own terms. I’m the daughter of a Caribbean domestic worker and my reading is filtered through that as well as my understanding of the era in which the story takes place.

    The critiques I read so far raise important points. However I think they miss out on one important piece of the story—agency. These maids did what they viewed as possible given their circumstances. Did it affect change? No. Did it prompt people to organize? Not so much. (There’s only one example of the ladies organizing to raise money to take care of a maid’s family after she was arrested for stealing a ruby ring.) What we see as childish, isolated acts of revenge were acts of coping…not necessarily attempts at effecting change. Too often I think we dismiss these smaller acts as inconsequential and unimportant. Limited, yes but important in so far as what the maids’ viewed as possible. Pooping in her boss’s pie was childish, but it was an act of coping from a woman with an abusive husband and several children of her own. Telling their stories to a white woman for a book wasn’t an attack on racism, but I think it allowed them to break the silence and that for them was an act of empowerment.

    THis is getting longer than I anticipated…so I’ll end by saying I think the characters are problematic but given the perspective from which its written, one can view the maids’ actions as an extension of their perceived agency. Jimmie Lucille Hooks comes to mind.

  2. Randy says:

    Thanks for your comment KB. I agree with you that the proof of agency no matter how ineffective is important particularly for people who think themselves powerless. My point is that not all acts of rebellion are the same; some are more effective than others at improving the situation. Your point that not everyone is in a position to make a political rather than personal reaction, is a point well taken.


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