The Help and the Numbing Lies of White Savior Narratives

In a moment of desperate change against anti-Black bigotry, some folks are turning for comfort to white savior films like The Help. They shouldn't.

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in The Help
Photo: Disney

Like many who care about racial justice – especially those of us who write about pop culture – one of my inclinations is to recommend movies and television shows as educational tools or emotional salves for a given moment. But while many of the lists I saw from Black folks feature the work of Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay, the 2011 white savior film The Help also started trending on Twitter.

Based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help lives in a category of film alongside Green Book, Crash, and Driving Miss Daisy. These movies exist to comfort white people like myself about race. But right now, when more white people in this country than ever before are confronting anti-Black racism and police brutality, white people need to fight our inclination to use media as escapism and a numbing agent. Instead we need media that challenges us and to sit in our discomfort, knowing it’s still a mere fraction of the daily discrimination and violence experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color every day in America.

When it was released, some critics, like the Boston Globe’s Wesley Lowery, were pointed and thoughtful in their critique of The Help. Most defenses of the movie, however, rely on the powerful performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. While their talent is unquestionable, that doesn’t mitigate the inherent problems with the story itself, and others like it.

In white savior narratives, issues of race are explored through the lens of a white protagonist, in this case, Emma Stone’s quirky outsider Skeeter. Meanwhile, the Black characters the film is named after play a supporting role in the story. In fact, Viola Davis eventually came to regret taking the role, telling Vanity Fair, “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.” Worse still, according to Ablene Cooper, the longtime nanny of Stockett’s brother, the story is stolen. So much so, the author’s brother sided with Cooper over his sister. The suit was dismissed, however, due to the one-year statute of limitations being up, not on the merits.  

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With narratives like this, there are clear lines between good white people and bad ones, like the mean society ladies who mistreat the Black maids who work for them, as embodied in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, and the ones respectful of “the help,” like Stone’s Skeeter. That dichotomy reinforces the false notion many white folks hold that if you’re a good person, you’re not – and simply could never be – racist. It’s the animating principle behind arguments like “I don’t know how you could possibly call me a racist, since you don’t know me and what’s in my heart!” and “I’m not a racist, I’m a good person!” And sure Susan, maybe you are a good person, but you said a racist thing and that’s a problem.

There will usually be one or two white characters in movies like this (or shows, or “very special episodes) who start off rough around the edges or otherwise mean, like Viggo Mortenson’s Tony Lip in Green Book or Allison Janney’s matriarch in The Help. The character says or does some racist things at the beginning of the movie, but by the end, by virtue of knowing literally one Black person (or one football team – I see you, Remember the Titans!) they are redeemed, their heart grows three sizes, and they have become completely and totally cured of racism!

The main character of Tony Lip in Green Book – who I might remind you, is based on a real person and was written by his son, in a version of events that relatives of the real Dr. Don Shirley completely dispute – is a variation on this theme. By the end of the movie, he’s rocking the “I’m a real bastard, but I’m not a racist bastard!” vibe. In the case of the particularly egregious Crash, the entire movie existed to show that hey, this moment’s racist sexual predator is another moment’s white savior (hey there Matt Dillon) so what is racism, anyway?

But neither lines up to the reality of racism in America. It’s baked into our very foundation, from the way the country was built to our founding documents and their inherent hypocrisies, and all throughout our laws. It’s systemic, whether we’re looking at how redlining kept Black families from building intergenerational wealth (and still does to this day – and helped our current president build his fortune) or the school-to-prison pipeline, like how Black children are more likely to be suspended than white children for the same infractions. Individual people saying awful things to someone’s face is bad, but it’s not the sum total of racism in America; it’s merely a symptom.

The treatment of Black characters isn’t much better, though at first glance it might appear to be. Characters are generally one dimensional, falling into tropes like The Help’s saintly downtrodden mammy Aibilene or Minny as the Angry Black Woman. The flatness of these characters means they’re not allowed to experience the full spectrum of human emotion, perpetuating a harmful idea that neither do Black people in real life. The Help critiques the white socialites for marginalizing the Black women housekeepers, all the while contributing to that marginalization with the way it filters those Black women’s experience entirely through a white protagonist. 

I’m not saying anything new here, or anything Black entertainment writers and culture critics haven’t already said. While I’m not interested in speaking over Black critics, this is an all hands on deck situation – I don’t think any of us should be sitting this struggle out. And we know that for some white folks, messages about racism are more palatable when they come from other white people. So if someone is out there looking for The Help so they can watch it right now and stumbles across this article, or perhaps someone who already knows these narratives are harmful is looking for an article to explain why so they can send it to someone, maybe it will do some good.  

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These films are not new. As a kid living in New England, I remember loving the film Mississippi Burning and learning a lot about a time before I was born, and about a place where I had never lived. It wasn’t until college that I heard a classmate critique the fictionalization and the way the narrative was framed, leaving out the names of the deceased or the work of activists in solving the case, instead focusing on two good Northern white lawmen coming to town to resolve a crime and “save” Black folks from bad, racist white people. Adding insult to injury is the stark departure from reality, where in fact the FBI was actively surveilling various civil rights activists, with the goal of undermining and discrediting the movement via its COINTELPRO program, going so far as to try to convince Martin Luther King Jr to take his own life.

I didn’t know it when I first saw the film, but part of the appeal of Mississippi Burning had been that it fed into my notion as a liberal from Massachusetts that I came from the good part of the country and was one of the good white people. The film’s framing allowed me to consume a chapter in our nation’s history from a distance, without questioning any complicity I shared as a fellow white person, or holding up any of the numerous Black heroes who have toiled over centuries of our nation’s history in the quest for their own liberation, many in complete obscurity.

In the world of this Mississippi Burning, Black people are almost entirely passive victims, in a break with the factual history of the event. It’s no surprise that so many white savior films have a shaky relationship with the truth. Even a movie like Hidden Figures, which shows NASA’s Black women computers leading the way during the space race, twisted itself away from the truth in one scene in order to give their white male boss a shining moment of fabricated heroism, when he took down the “whites only” sign from the bathroom. White saviorism is a fiction, which is why writers must resort to fiction in order to insert it into otherwise-truthful narratives.

As we as white folks find where we plug in to the various movements to fully liberate Black people in America and worldwide, we must consider that this is a longterm commitment. Binge-watching the work of Barry Jenkins and Amma Assante, and then calling it quits isn’t enough. We need to build education into our daily lives over the long term, which also means undoing white supremacy, even deceptively well-meaning fictions and half-truths that reinforce the privilege of it. It means seeking out work by Black creators, rather than work about Black people by white people, and seeking out Black reviewers and thinkers, whether they’re talking about film and television that tackles issues of race or not. We need to support Black projects, even when they’re not about Black pain and suffering, because Black joy, Black nerds, and everything in between is valid and valuable to our entertainment landscape.