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The Help is a model of the most unhelpful cinematography

I didn’t want to see it. I knew it would most likely infuriate me and it would make me sad (and I try to avoid sad because sad is an emotion permanently lurking and waiting to make a jump and get hold of me; and then it sends me into this spiral of more sadness and anxiety). I didn’t want to see it because I knew some of it would hit too close to home for personal reasons. Mostly, I wanted to spare myself the potential heartbreak. I am, of course, talking about The Help.

Lots have been written about this movie in the past few days. Lots by many smart people (people way smarter and more knowledgeable than me). AfroLez has compiled the most comprehensive list of critiques I’ve seen so far and I truly believed I would have nothing to add to them. But then I saw the movie. And it seems I have something to say. Plenty to say, in fact.

To begin with, I almost fell off my chair as the opening credits rolled. The first frame was a screen wide logo of DreamWorks, which considering this is a Hollywood film should not surprise anyone. The next frame, though. Oh yes, this is when I found out that the other production company behind this train wreck is actually Imagenation Abu Dhabi. Never heard of it? Oh, I cannot blame you, I wouldn’t have known it either if it wasn’t that I was actually working in Abu Dhabi when this government owned venture was being set up and looking for Hollywood projects to invest in.

But before I get to the politics of this production company, I want to share a tidbit of information with you: one of the reasons I stopped working in Abu Dhabi amidst a very deep personal crisis, was because I had been hired by an institution that turned out to be involved in very abusive practices. I saw first hand the systemic oppression of maids, all of them WoC from Africa, South East Asia and the Philippines in the United Arab Emirates (the Emirates is a country, termed “emirates” because it is ruled by emirs; the capital is Abu Dhabi, which is also the country’s center of political, industrial and cultural activities). I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I was being paid by some of the people involved in these abuses. I saw myself as complicit in a situation I could neither change nor address but which I felt led me to profiting from the suffering of vulnerable WoC. I was then bound by Confidentiality Agreements that prevented me from writing about these subjects, mainly because the government provided the money that backed the Foundation that had hired me. I invite you to pursue the archives of Migrant Rights to get an idea of the systemic abuses these domestic workers endure. I left in 2009 and I haven’t been back since.

What exactly would compel Imagenation Abu Dhabi to invest in a movie that advances the idea of WoC’s lack of agency? What would compel this government owned company to back up a film that perpetuates rancid notions about the social standing and lives of domestic workers, when this government itself has often been accused of not addressing the abuse that domestic workers in the Emirates face in the hands of the ruling classes? I can assure you, this was not a random decision. This is politically motivated (every investment made by the government of the Emirates IS politically motivated, even though we might not be able to pin point the exact reasons at first sight).

Before seeing the movie, I had already read at least half a dozen well thought critiques. I had also read the commentary that these critiques had, in turn, triggered. In a sense, I knew what to expect. I just wasn’t prepared for the insidious ways in which the racism and erasure are presented. The whitewashing is not just in the words, in the interactions, in the narrative. The whitewashing is also evident in the profusion of pastel colors. The White universe comes in shades of pink, beige, lilac, mauve and baby blue. It’s like the production spent months carefully studying each photo in Carefree White Girl and decided to bring that aesthetic to life. In a racist movie, no less. In contrast, the African American, the Black universe, is dark. It comes in shades of petrol green, grey, brown, faded ochre, it is badly lit. Because, you see, the light always comes from the White universe. The White universe has sunny days and gardens and copious vegetation. The White universe is not just a metaphor for the enlightenment of Blacks. The White universe is light itself!

And this White, well lit universe is populated by a multitude of barely modernized Blanche DuBois-es. And again, here’s what’s insidious about the racism in this movie: that the writers would use these women who are obviously so flawed and so contemptible as instruments of redemption to the Black characters. What they are telling us through this narrative is that these deeply immoral characters are above the Black women because they are the ones who supposedly provide the redemption, they are the ones who should facilitate it. Even the supposedly “good” girl, Skeeter (the main character, played by Emma Stone) is abusive, although, of course, this is left unaddressed because, she is, after all “the hero”. When met with Aibileen Clark’s refusal (played by the wonderful Viola Davis), she won’t take no for an answer. Skeeter is determined to see the book happen. She relentlessly pursues Aibileen, goes after her when she is about to take the bus to go home. Due to the obvious power imbalance in this pursuit, we should call it for what it is, harassment. The maid, the help is expected to give away her free time in the pursuit of a White woman’s book. With no promise or contractual agreement of compensation for doing so, just because, she is told, Skeeter is going to write a book. And it’s going to be good! And we are not directly informed, but it is implicit in Skeeter’s reaction after her first sit down session with Aibileen, this book is going to get Skeeter a career in the publishing industry. At the expense of a WoC’s labor and effort. Wonderful! Racist capitalism in pastel colors!

Make no mistake, in addition to its racism and White Supremacy, this film is also deeply misogynistic. And its misogyny is directed in great doses at White women themselves. It’s a tired trope of slut shaming, girl on girl crimes, heteronormative and sexist cliches. Women exist in two categories: subservient WoC or oppressive, shallow, abusive White women. That some critics are defending it as a powerful tale of “the ways that females of the era both dished out and endured racism” misses the point entirely. The White women in this film are portrayed as oblivious to their part in the oppression of their own gender. They exercise violence towards the help (vulgar, open, never disguised violence) but they also do so on their own friends, colleagues, family members, fetuses. In that regard, they are creatures bereft of humanity and empathy even towards each other. For that, we should also be deeply offended. Because, you see, the film thinks so lowly of women that we are presented with Women of Color devoid of agency and incapable of telling their own stories without a White woman’s proxy while at the same time, the White women themselves do nothing but constantly undermine each other. In the end, contrary to what the film makers would have us believe, there is no redemption for anyone. There is only the perpetuation of these roles for both Black and White women alike. And misogyny for all.


  1. Jane O wrote:

    Ouch! Excellent review of a film I will never watch, because as I suspected, all the women in it are stereotypes. Thank you.

    Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  2. Emmitt wrote:

    Armond White got it right:

    “Except for tomboy Skeeter, the film’s white women are extreme caricatures. This simplifies racism as aberrant to American social custom and denies its normality.”

    It’s like a running theme in these feel-good movies about racism that the real racists are all ridiculous people from the past and now we’re no longer like that so we can ignore how racism is institutionalized or how it still exists openly in accepted forms.

    Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  3. aravind wrote:

    Everything I feared and suspected this movie would be has come to pass. I should’ve know when my parents got an invitation to a showing of it at 10 am on a weekday – no one can actually go to that who doesn’t have “help” (dehumanizing reclassification of subordinated people into another term, anyone?).

    Maybe this is just me, but the link to “carefree white girl” seems broken. I’ll retry in firefox though, since it’s probably just my computer misbehaving.

    Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  4. Coefficient of Swag wrote:

    Carefreewhitegirl is down for me, too, but I can see it through google cache (and you can, too!)

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink
  5. rika wrote:

    I liked the movie. I was half way through the book when I decided to see the film. I took it for what it was the authors attempt to thank her families maid whom she loved and never got the chance to say thank you. As a result of the book/ film there is a generation of white men and women seeking their childhood maids to do the Same, say thank you. I’m sure its appreciated and long overdue.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  6. @Emmitt — I think you’re right on and it’s why I can’t get into “Mad Men” either. All of the characters are engaging in this picturesque, stylish sexism and racism that is In The Past and Does Not Happen Anymore, so Isn’t It Quaint?


    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  7. JfC wrote:

    @Gingerandlime I think a lot of people take that message away from Mad Men, and that’s terrible. What I like about the show, however, is that they’ll also throw in forms of discrimination that go on today but are dismissed, essentially linking that era’s sexism and racism to current bullshit. i.e. Joan’s rape, where she’s in a relationship with her assailant and who she doesn’t fight physically, Campbell’s rape of the au pair, Betty’s friends talking past Carla about how racism is low class. I don’t think Mad Men is perfect by far, and some segments of the audience that like it for the outfits and the “old-fashioned extinct bigotry” are part of the problem (as well as their habit of NEVER EXPLORING THE INNER LIVES OF WHAT FEW POC THERE ARE), but I do see the show trying to link by-gone prejudice with forms that are still openly practiced and accepted.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  8. Joel Reinstein wrote:

    haven’t seen the movie, but I’m totally willing to judge a book by its cover + scathing reviews.

    This is like a microcosm for the left. You have the people inspired by The Help / Obama’s inauguration, and those who are serious: who don’t think social justice will be won in the arc of a Disney movie (or Dreamworks, in this case).

    @Rika: sounds like the problem with the movie is that it smothers an ugly past with thick white paint, inaccurately influencing our ideas of history. It also (apparently – haven’t seen it, don’t care to see it) plays right into that old colonial notion of white people helping black people become “better,” i.e. more like whites. All while presenting itself as a heartwarming, feel-good tale about “change” the inevitable march towards justice. Pretty insulting to those actual people we call “the help.”

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  9. Rosalina wrote:

    Like The Blind Side, this movie is just another way to let the ignorant people who live in a bubble to believe that everything is perfect, that white people have the ultimate power to pull the minorities from their ‘gutter’. Another pat on the back, good white people doing their part to make sure that racism no longer exists. I have relatives who are raving about this, stating that they ‘remember back then, oh it is so true’, I also witnessed a group of older white women discuss it on a plane ride and I wanted to yell- Hey idiots, pay attention, it’s not over! It’s excellent to get a different perspective regarding the political moves made by Imagenation, I wonder how many people really know where this company comes from, or do they see Abu Dhabi and think, ‘Yay more inclusiveness’!

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink