The Iron Lady over The Help's Viola Davis.]]>"/> The Iron Lady over The Help's Viola Davis.]]>"/>

Karen Ocamb

'The Help' Controversy: Art vs Real Racism in the Jim Crow South

Filed By Karen Ocamb | February 29, 2012 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Jim Crow laws, Melissa Harris-Perry, Meryl Streep, Oscars, sanitized racism, Tavis Smiley, The Iron Lady

Octavia Spencer's emotion acceptance of the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award on Feb. 26, 2012 (Photo screen capture)

No doubt about it, many in the Oscar audience were pulling for the actresses of "The Help" to win at the Academy Awards Sunday night. And when Octavia Spencer was named Best Supporting Actress, she received a standing ovation for her performance as maid Minny Jackson in the Jim Crow South.

In what the Hollywood Reporter called "a shocker," the majority white, male Academy voters picked Meryl Streep for her performance of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady over Viola Davis, who bested Streep at the SAG Awards. Streep has been nominated 17 times but this is her first win since 1983.

But, as The Grio, Colorlines, and other black sites have reported, not everyone was happy with The Help. I saw the movie and was taken with how the actresses controlled the characters’ rage and fear. But I was deeply conflicted by how almost “civilized” the film portrayed the abject ugly racism of the Jim Crow South where maids and other people of color were considered merely disposable human property. I felt similarly conflicted when I first saw the AIDS film Philadelphia, where Tom Hanks getting skinny and showing purple KS lesions was almost glamorized compared to the ugly reality I knew about people deteriorating and dying with HIV/AIDS before the medications. It took me a while to grasp that this “Hollywood” version with likable Tom Hanks enabled tons of people who might not otherwise have anything to do with HIV/AIDS to at least get a sense of the human damage done by the epidemic. I wonder if The Help might at least start to do the same for racism and improving conditions for domestic workers.

Davis and Spencer appeared on the Tavis Smiley show and faced criticism from the host about the entertainment industry:

I celebrate the two of you. I’m delighted that you were nominated [for Oscars]… and yet I will admit to you. There is an ambivalence here…There is something that sticks in my craw about celebrating Hattie McDaniel so many years ago for playing a maid… here we are all these years later and I want you to win, but I’m ambivalent about what you are winning for.

To which Davis replied:

That very mindset that you have and that a lot of African-Americans have is absolutely destroying the black artist. The black artist cannot live in a place--in a revisionist place--a black artist can only tell the truth about humanity and humanity is messy, people are messy....We as African-American artists are more concerned with image and message and not execution, which is why every time you see your images they've been watered down to the point where they where they are not realistic at all, it's like all of our humanity has been washed out.

Watch Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

But progressive intellect Melissa Harris-Perry, who has a new Saturday show on MSNBC, told Lawrence O'Donnell she found the movie "deeply troubling" and tweeted while watching the film last August that it “reduces violent racism, sexism and labor exploitation to a cat fight that can be won with cunning spunk.”

As the Huffington Post reports, Harris-Perry spend most of her Saturday show discussing the issue:

On Saturday, Harris-Perry returned to the topic, covering it along largely the same lines. She said that the “real stories” of black domestic workers were far more compelling than the stories told in “The Help,” and involved political activism and resistance –both of which were met with terror.

She accused “The Help” of whitewashing history, saying that, for many black women, the reality of their employment was “much closer to a horror film than a lighthearted drama. Just ask those who found themselves at the mercy of Jim Crow justice, at the end of the lynch mob’s rope or a burning torch…for black maids, the threat of rape was always a clear and present danger.”

While Harris-Perry said she was “appalled at the gross historical inaccuracies” that she saw, she also admitted to being “deeply moved” by Davis and Spencer’s performances. But she lamented that, over 70 years after Hattie McDaniel became the first black woman to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With The Wind,” Davis and Spencer should only find themselves similarly honored when they did the same thing.

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