The Help Joins Controversial ‘White Guilt’ Genre

The Help review numbers are solid on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 73 percent score thus far. But underneath the positive reviews, the movie is getting the same criticism the book did. When the book first hit the shelves, it was easy to criticize it as another “white guilt” story in which white characters got more credit for winning African-Americans their civil rights than actual African-Americans. Now the movie version is joining the large collection of films that have gotten the same label.

On one level, that label isn’t a setback in the short term, since several “white guilt” movies have done quite well at first. The Blind Side didn’t let the label stop it from being a box office hit or from winning Sandra Bullock an Oscar. Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture. Mississippi Burning received several nominations. To Kill A Mockingbird is still regarded as a classic.

In the case of The Help, many a review is quite positive in spite of the negative undercurrent. Even those who pan the movie still praise Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as the lead maids, when not lamenting how their characters are treated. The rest of the cast is well-regarded as well, from rising stars like Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard to beloved veterans like Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek.

With that collection of actresses and a built-in fan base for the book, the film has a real shot at being both a critical and commercial success. What’s more, Davis and Spencer could have real shots at Oscar consideration as well. In those regards, the movie is making out quite well. But like The Blind Side, Driving Miss Daisy and Mississippi Burning, there is room to consider if The Help‘s success comes at a price.

Since they are “white guilt” movies, it reflects Hollywood’s problem with making civil rights films that are more about whites learning a lesson than African Americans winning their freedom. And since audiences keep flocking to them anyway, it gives Hollywood more motivation to keep making them rather than try anything different.

In the case of The Help, some, like Ryan Wells from Cinespect, may agree that the “white guilt chain jerking” is done in “stupidly poor taste.” However, Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune actually argues that the movie “avoids the trap” of making “a story of black struggle into the story of a white savior.” These types of divided opinions surrounded the book, so it is fitting that the film has the same controversy.

If the film does make it big, it will join the vast collection of “white guilt” hits, which is a good collection to be in in terms of awards and box office. But it is still too troubling for everyone to agree that it works on a deeper level; that can still be felt even while The Help racks up good buzz elsewhere.


Rotten Tomatoes- “The Help- Movie Reviews”

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