Racism? Why I’m Not Surprised By The Help’s Nomination For Best Picture

January 25, 2012  |  

by Charing Ball

Even before the film The Help opened, folks were already predicting that it would be nominated for an Academy Award.  The public hadn’t seen it and didn’t know whether the film, plot or acting was any good.  But the running joke for weeks prior to its opening was that the Academy Awards loves seeing Black characters playing maids, drug dealers, pimps and other lowly characters.

That’s why for many, the several nominations the film received including Best Picture, Best Actress (Viola Davis) and two Best Supporting Actress nods for Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain comes as little surprise. It’s been about 73 years since Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Gone With The Wind in which she too played a maid. And after all this time, it certainly seems that our best work in Hollywood always comes by way of cleaning up the mess of white folks.

Nevertheless, we will all be cheering on both Viola Davis, who is not a stranger to Hollywood, and Octavia Spencer, who seems to be on a fairytale ride, for bringing depth and grace to their roles. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that their success with this film is a bit bittersweet. As Kola Boof, feminist and Egyptian-Sudanese-American novelist, noted in a tweet, “I Really *HATE**that Viola Davis will have to sit in the OSCAR audience with the term “The Help” written across her chest all night.” Word.

At first, I was reluctant to go and see The Help because, like Red Tails, I objected to the questionable marketing strategy of the film, which felt it necessary to use images of black domestics to hawk Emeril Lagasse stainless steel cookware. And where have I seen that before? Oh Aunt Jemima and her famous pancakes. But I digress.

After months of folks giving me the same old justification of “that’s true but you should really see it first,” I conceded and sat down to watch the film. Certainly it was quite entertaining watching Minnie hand deliver a special pie to her evil, former boss. However, I was still less fulfilled emotionally with the conclusion of the film. While Skeeter, the aspiring journalist and white protagonist in the story, gets to go on to New York after “heroically” telling the tale of her Black domestics (which was more about shaming her former friends), the domestics themselves, whose stories were exploited for the benefit of the aspiring journalist, are again left to clean up the mess left behind by Ms. Skeeter.  I mean, who exactly is this satisfying to?

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