What ‘The Help’ and ‘Gone With the Wind’ (don’t) tell us about Hollywood’s racial progress
In February, weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency and months before George Floyd was killed in police custody, President Trump attended a Colorado rally and took the opportunity to voice his displeasure with this year’s Academy Awards. After shaking his head at the fact that the big winner was a South Korean movie he hadn’t seen (and whose title he didn’t bother to acknowledge), our critic-in-chief went on to ramble: “Let’s get ‘Gone With the Wind’ — can we get, like, ‘Gone With the Wind’ back, please?”
Never mind the fact that, its title notwithstanding, the film hasn’t actually gone anywhere. Because the Trump presidency is predicated on a specious nostalgia for a better, bygone America, it was entirely on-brand for him to invoke films (including “Sunset Boulevard”) from the industry’s golden age: Make Hollywood great again, more or less. And make no mistake, “Sunset Boulevard” is a great film. So too is “Gone With the Wind,” though even its most passionate admirers would agree that a demonstrably racist president is far from an ideal champion.
Trump’s invocation drew on familiar shorthand: “Gone With the Wind” as universal, inviolable symbol of Hollywood greatness. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial by John Ridley, the filmmaker and novelist who won an Oscar for writing “12 Years a Slave,” revived an equally familiar counterpoint: The movie is an insidious lie that coats the Old South — and the suffering of enslaved Black men and women — in layers of gorgeous, mythologizing Technicolor shellac. In his editorial, Ridley called on HBO Max, a newly launched WarnerMedia Entertainment streaming service, to remove the film temporarily from its rotation. Within hours, the service had done just that, promising the film would return in the future with supplemental materials providing historical context and a “denouncement” of its racist depictions.
That promise wasn’t enough to keep some outraged observers from crying “censorship” — something Ridley took pains to note he wasn’t calling for, and a word that, frankly, my dear, doesn’t mean a damn when applied to a picture that is available on Blu-ray and DVD, pops up regularly on TCM and can be streamed on just about every other major movie platform. (The movie shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list almost immediately after its removal from HBO Max.)
You could say that “Gone With the Wind” is having a moment. You could say it’s never not had a moment: Eighty-one years after its release, it remains one of the most beloved and bitterly contested landmarks in movie history. But what does it say that this latest moment is happening now, amid galvanizing protests, the toppling of Confederate statues and a long-overdue national reckoning with 400 years of entrenched anti-Black racism? For that matter, what does it signify that both “Gone With the Wind” and “The Help,” two very different movies that project a decidedly gauzy view of white-Black relations in a less enlightened American South, have sucked up so much cultural oxygen?
Nothing terribly inspiring, to be sure, but also nothing to draw hasty conclusions from. Based on a quick perusal of social-media feeds and recommendation lists, I imagine that more than a few movie lovers right now are also checking out “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee’s latest virtuoso dispatch from the front lines of America’s war on Black lives, or perhaps catching up with “The Hate U Give” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” both richly emotional stories about the resilience of Black families and the wages of police brutality. I hope many more of you are discovering the rhetorical riches of documentaries like “13th” and “I Am Not Your Negro,” or giving much-needed attention to “Let the Fire Burn,” a brilliant found-footage account of a 1985 clash between Black separatists and Philadelphia police.
The current fascination with “Gone With the Wind” and “The Help” might say more about how film discourse naturally gravitates toward what we might call contentious crowd-pleasers — those sentimental, broadly appealing entertainments that divide as many audiences as they unite. It also says something about streaming platforms and their opportunistic programming decisions in a time of quarantine, when those decisions are drawing more attention than usual. That’s what happened earlier this month with “The Help,” Tate Taylor’s genteel 2011 comedy-drama about white housewives and Black housemaids in 1960s Jackson, Miss., which became one of the most popular titles on Netflix shortly after the protests began.
Questions ensued: Were Netflix algorithms deliberately offering up “The Help” to subscribers, or were subscribers actively seeking it out? Was this surge in popularity a reflection of the outrage driving the Black Lives Matter protests — or, given “The Help’s” soothing, palliative qualities, a distraction from it? Less than two years after the divisive best picture Oscar win for “Green Book,” another upbeat fable of racial reconciliation set in the ’60s Deep South, did “The Help’s” big numbers offer further evidence that viewers still have to be fed bitter truths with a spoonful of sugar, a dose of feel-good comedy and a lot of distancing period gloss?
I’m not entirely sure about that last question, insofar as I’m not convinced that “The Help,” for all its faults, deserves the ignominy of being lumped together with “Green Book.” Taylor’s film may offer its own too-tidy juxtaposition of Black suffering and white self-examination, but it is also a slier, craftier picture than it suggests on paper: In its sharpest moments, it captures some sense of the complicated, painfully negotiated intimacy between Black maids and their white employers under domestic and economic circumstances that bound them closely together.
In any event, whatever mild indignation “The Help” provoked was quickly swallowed up by the long, contentious shadow of “Gone With the Wind.”
I’m not the first to point out that WarnerMedia’s decision to remove the film — like more than a few corporate-issued statements in support of Black Lives Matter — feels both performative and ineffectual, expressed in simplistic language (“‘Gone With the Wind’ is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society”) that doesn’t express much faith in the audience’s base knowledge or intellectual curiosity. It also feels like selective scapegoating, further inflating “Gone With the Wind’s” reputation as some sort of comprehensive monument to Hollywood bigotry, as if you could take it down and convince yourself you’d done your part to take down racism.
Warnings and denunciations are all fine and dandy; they are also nothing new. It may come as a surprise to some — especially those who think of progressivism as something that began this century — that “Gone With the Wind” has always attracted controversy, has never existed in a vacuum devoid of intelligent, contextualizing scrutiny. It has been banned and condemned, deconstructed and analyzed, screened with introductory caveats and post-film discussion panels for 81 years and counting. The debate endures. The movie does too.
One of its most enduring attributes is Hattie McDaniel’s performance as Mammy — the first performance by an African American actor ever to win an Oscar, and thus an eternal emblem of pride and shame among Black audiences and artists. It’s an unresolvable, irreducible achievement: a performance that captivated audiences on the strength of McDaniel’s salt-of-the-earth gusto and emotive power, but which undeniably used that strength to entrench a dangerous stereotype. And notably, it’s the persistence of this stereotype — the Black woman as outwardly obedient, inwardly steely domestic servant — that connects the Civil War melodrama of “Gone With the Wind” to the Jim Crow-era activism of “The Help.”
In “The Help,” Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer play Aibileen and Minny, 1960s maids who quietly rebel against white supremacy. Spencer won a supporting actress Oscar for her snappily entertaining comic turn; Davis was nominated for a lead actress Oscar for her stoic dramatic one. They’re both strong performances. They also spurred more than a few critics to ask why, in 2011 — decades after “Gone With the Wind” and two versions of “Imitation of Life” — the juiciest, most prominent movie roles for Black actresses still required them to clean white women’s houses. Mammy could at least be dismissed as a relic of a more ignorant era. “The Help,” ostensibly the product of more enlightened times, went farther but not far enough.
McDaniel, a Hollywood trailblazer, remained proud of her legacy and the opportunities that she afforded other Black actors, and often defended “Gone With the Wind” against criticism. In a telling contrast, Davis expressed reservations in a 2018 New York Times interview about having appeared in “The Help,” acknowledging that the voices of the maid characters had been sidelined in their own story. (She isn’t the only cast member who has gently criticized “The Help”; Bryce Dallas Howard recently acknowledged the movie’s Netflix popularity in an Instagram post and proceeded to recommend several other films directed by and centering Black talent.)
There is something instructive, I think, about McDaniel’s defense and Davis’ regret. One reason “Gone With the Wind” has endured as an object of love, loathing and fascination is that it’s so defiant, so unrepentant about what it is. Perhaps the most galling thing about its rosy depiction of the Old South is that, while far from accidental, it feels curiously incidental to the movie’s only real concern, which is to make Scarlett O’Hara the greatest American heroine ever to grace the silver screen. Everything that passes before the camera, from dutiful, contented Black slaves to war-wounded white extras, also passes through the prism of Scarlett’s fiddle-dee-dee narcissism. Largely oblivious to an entire group of characters within its story, the movie is also somehow triumphantly impervious to its own failings.
It’s a complicated text, in other words, a repository of strange, contradictory meanings that — as the critic Angelica Jade Bastién pointed out in her superb 2017 essay for New York magazine/Vulture — cannot be reduced to something as single-minded as a Confederate monument. “If ‘Gone With the Wind’ were consigned to the past,” Bastién wrote, “it would make it easier for many to forget how indicative it is of our present.” Love it or hate it, we fool ourselves if we pretend that “Gone With the Wind” didn’t teach Hollywood some of its most enduring lessons: the art of the beautiful lie, the art of airbrushing away human pain. The more we may try to abandon this movie on the rubble heap of cinematic history, the more power it accrues — and the more its uncontainable grandeur seems to mock the piddling racial progress of liberal Hollywood.
“The Help,” made 72 years after “Gone With the Wind,” is a minor example of that progress — likable, well-meaning, insufficient. The performances are robust, but the framing is half-hearted at best, retrograde at worst: So much of the drama concerns the efforts of a white writer, Skeeter (Emma Stone), to coax Aibileen, Minny and the other maids (none of whom we get to know as closely) into telling their stories. The result isn’t really a story about Black experience; it’s a story about the difficult process of getting Black characters to talk about that experience. It establishes an unexamined moral equivalency between the story’s white and Black characters — and that equivalency, of course, is the main source of the movie’s theoretical appeal to so many white viewers. It offers them a point of entry.
Comfort, in other words — or at least, comfort as a lot of white viewers might define it. We’ve happily seen some powerful correctives to that approach in recent years. We’ve seen, among others, “Moonlight” and “Mudbound” and “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman” and “Get Out” and “12 Years a Slave,” all artful films that put Black individuality and experience powerfully front and center. And all of them, it’s worth noting, achieved their cultural foothold in part by earning some recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the same organization that lavished eight Oscars on “Gone With the Wind” and has given its highest honor to facile racial-reconciliation fables like “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Crash” and “Green Book.”
It’s hard not to keep returning to the Oscars, whose choices are easy to scoff at but have, for better and often for worse, shaped the lens through which we view Hollywood history. The academy has of course made progress — a diversifying membership and the president’s displeasure are both good signs — and it has vowed to keep bringing forth a better version of itself, one that will more accurately reflect the demographics of the world at large. This too might be a performative gesture. It could also be significant and influential, insofar as the academy’s long-standing practice of championing comfort at the expense of art is one that a lot of movie lovers have been content to bring into their own living rooms.
I hasten to add that I don’t despise, or consider myself above, the pleasures of comfort, least of all now. The movies are my soul balm, my blessed escape from reality, as much as they are anyone else’s, and that was true long before 2020 ushered in a pandemic and a startling new chapter in the ongoing battle for civil rights in this country. This is not a time when I begrudge anyone their comfort. It is a time, though, to recognize that comfort should mark the beginning of our reckoning with racism, not the end of it. And to question anew the purpose and value of art, especially art that speaks softly to power when it should be shaking it — and us — to the core.
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