Pieces of the Dream: King, The Help and Hollywood’s White Savior Syndrome

by Dax-Devlon Ross

I.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail

A few days ago I returned to Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The last time I’d read the letter in its entirety was high school. I suppose I was moved to return to the letter by the recent opening of the King memorial. But I also heard echoes of King’s upbraiding of the “white moderate”  in Patricia Turner’s  measured critique of The Help in The New York Times as well as Martha Southgate’s eloquently acerbic Entertainment Weekly cover story. Like Mississippi Burning and To Kill a Mockingbird, the story advances a view of racism and the civil rights era that is incompatible with the facts. That the central function of these stories is to soothe the psyches of good whites who do not consider themselves racists or having benefited from racism is troubling. That they evidence the persistence of the white savior complex in American cinema is nauseating. That they do so at the expense of people who felt and continue to feel the brunt of racial bias is morally inexcusable.

But this has all been exhaustively and perceptively rendered already. What I found myself wondering was why there is such a disconnect in our American realities and how in 2011 this particular story can stir up such dissimilar emotions?

Last week I also read Cornel West’s missive on the memorial as well as Michael Eric Dyson’s take in Time. In doing so it occurred to me that what makes King so memorial-worthy is his malleability. He was so prolific and dynamic in his 39 years that Taylor Branch needed three books and nearly 3,000 pages to capture him. He was a minister, scholar, ambassador, humanitarian, statesmen, activist, and author. And through it all he never contradicted his core values. Bus boycott King was wholly consistent with anti-war King. They are versions of the same self. And yet, those versions have given rise to what Dr. Dyson refers to as a “bitter dispute over King’s legacy in black America.” In a nutshell, the dispute is over the manner in which King’s name and message should be invoked and is allegedly being waged by fellow Baby Boomers and King acolytes West, Tavis Smiley, Al Sharpton and President Obama. This is all as true as it is false.

Narrowly defining the “dispute” as one that only involves a) men, b) black men and c) black men of a certain age reinforces a false notion that King was simply a civil rights leader and speech maker instead of a revolutionary whose legacy reverberates through every social-change movement in the last half-century. Constricting his legacy to his black male spiritual progeny doesn’t just stifle a more meaningful collective inquiry into his vision and adoption of his values. The in-fighting among a handful of gate keepers and moral brow beaters licenses the vast majority of Americans to maintain a shallow understanding of the persistent injustices that coarse through our social fabric. What results is a society that ignores facts and indulges fantasies such as those advanced in The Help. In the world of fantasy, African-American unemployment rates are twice those of white Americans largely because of differences in effort and ability and only marginally due to access and bias; African-American overrepresentation in prison is mostly a function of pathology and only mildly due to targeted policing and biased court room practices; white household wealth is 20 times that of black household wealth primarily because of financial responsibility and only indirectly as a result of accumulated social and economic advantages.

In the world of fantasy white Americans are the new losers in the zero-sum game of racial discrimination despite extensive, consistent and persistent evidence to the contrary.

How can many Americans, white and non-white alike, not harbor these and other beliefs, though? Our political discourse is infected with partisan pundits who advance inflammatory, cherry-picked arguments to their converts. These silver-tongued weapons of mass distraction routinely sever reason from reality, cause from effect, and context from conflict–whatever it takes to feed the audience’s indignation. Meanwhile, the silver screen and small screen alike supply wounded American egos with nostalgic archetypes that permit those with privilege and a conscience  to maintain both without experiencing the cognitive dissonance that arises from inaction.

II.

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

–MLK

In a recent piece entitled “Hollywood Superheroes Losing the Fight for Diversity,” NPR correspondent John Ridley asked, “[I]f Hollywood can crank out fantasy pictures with blue Smurfs, why is it so reticent to do the same with African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians?” In my opinion Ridley’s question doesn’t go far enough. “Reticence” isn’t the issue. Denial is the issue. The distinction is crucial. One is passive; the other is active. One suggests mere inaction. The other, intention. Philosopher and criminologist Jeffrey Reiman defines “intent” not as just “what we want to make happen but what we do on purpose knowing what is likely to happen as the normal result of what we have done” (emphasis added).

Consider the X-Men franchise. The script effortlessly employs the MLK/Malcolm X conflict to frame the tension between Professor Xavier and Magneto, but clumsily obliterates one African-American member of the team into stardust nearly as soon as he appears and characterizes the other as a disloyal strumpet. Something doesn’t fit. If the creators can remix the complex intraracial dynamic between King and X, why can’t they do the same for the black characters in the film? In Reiman’s view and mine, this isn’t just a failure to highlight black characters or place them in leading roles; this is evidence of an intentional campaign to stick to predictable tropes that stir up predictable outrage across the blogosphere (see here and here and here and here  and here, for starters). Now, a director may argue that he or she can’t compromise artistic vision to suit cultural sensitivities. He or she may even claim that the death symbolizes the black character’s post-racial liberation from the bondage of the stereotype. That may well be. It does not soften the blow. And that’s my point. As corny and mean-spirited as these stereotypes are, they persist.

Why?

Well, we could delve into conspiracy theories rooted in racism. We could even explore the emerging science around racism as a disease of the mind. I think it’s far simpler.

In early 2009 on the heels of President Obama’s inauguration, film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott lauded the movies for helping “imagine Mr. Obama’s transformative breakthrough before it occurred.” But when Ridley and others wonder why so few big-budget movies feature actors of color in non-traditional roles, producers point to white audiences. They won’t pay to see too many minorities, producers say. What we’re left with is a series of limp compromises (Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Crash, The Blind Side, etc.) that result in “shallow understanding” at best. These films win praise, provide a measure of catharsis to some, piss off others, and stir up a bit of controversy, but ultimately they maintain the status quo. In other words, there is a formula, and it works. Even Coca-Cola, the mother of all American brands, learned not to mess with the formula. As far as Hollywood is concerned, hurt feelings are just collateral damage.

III.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate … who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

–MLK

The same week The Help raked in $26,000,000 at the box office, a Mississippi judged barred a maid whose name, life experience, and physical appearance bear striking resemblances to the story’s protagonist from suing the author of the 5,000,000 copy-selling book, Kathyn Stockett, for a mere $75,000 in damages. The 60 year-old plaintiff has been the long-time maid for the author’s brother, who supported the claim. She had no idea that key details of her life had been written about. The woman found the characterization offensive and “emotionally upsetting”. Stockett filed for summary judgment, citing a one-year statute of limitations on the law suit; the judge agreed. The maid, characterized as both a stooge and leech, receded into obscurity. Meanwhile, The Help shot to number one in theaters.

This past winter Michael Oher, the subject of the award-winning book turned film, The Blind Side, published his own book. As appreciative of his adoptive family as he was and continues to be, he needed to tell his side of his story.  As an NFL player he had the platform to do so. “I felt like it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it,” Oher writes in the book. “I couldn’t figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football … I watched those scenes thinking, ‘No, that’s not me at all!'”

The Help just isn’t the same heart-warming tale giving voice to voiceless southern black women if the women on whom the story is based disagree with the way they’re portrayed. Similarly, The Blind Side isn’t the same white savior story if Oher isn’t a near feral creature the Tuohey family nurture and cultivate from scratch. Nearly fifty years after King penned his prophetic words, the “absence of tension” still trumps the “presence of justice” in American cinema and public life.

When King wrote, “injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action” he was talking to us all. Not just his black acolytes. Injustice distorts everyone. It invites a writer to lift a maid’s life without consent or compensation, warrants a judge to dismiss a legitimate claim on technical grounds, and emboldens a director to dumb down a young man in order to make up a better story. In a society truly committed to honoring justice, the fight to preserve King’s legacy would not be waged on the peripheries of public life by a few middle-aged men. Nor would we need to self-medicate on white saviors and black pathologies. Most of all, though, we wouldn’t need another statue.

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