By now, we have all read at least one op-ed/article/blog or heard a radio program dedicated to discussing the surprise hit film The Help. It’s one of the few non-Tyler Perry related movies to cause such a wide reaching discourse among black America. But this hasn’t been relegated to black folks, as this film has had crossover appeal and raked in crossover money.
Labor Day Weekend saw The Help take in $19.9 million in box office receipts and remain the number one movie in the country for the third week in a row, something no movie has done since last year’s blockbuster Inception. Thus far, The Help has cleared over $124 million in its theater run, having been released on August 10.
WATCH ‘TODAY SHOW’ COVERAGE OF THE HELP’S SUCCESS:
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It hasn’t had much competition, but its success is nonetheless notable. Here we have a movie that revolves around a plot dealing directly with the issues of civil rights and Jim Crow era race relations. It glosses over many of the hardships black maids endured during this time and essentially boils the problem of racism down to good people versus bad people and absolves the “good” of any responsibility in perpetuating the racism and privilege they have benefited from, but what is the last film we can name to place black people in prominent roles, be socially relevant in any capacity, and gross over $100 million?
The Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey star vehicle and Academy Award shunned The Color Purple, released 26 years ago, comes closest.
As we continue to debate the historical inaccuracy and who has the right to tell what stories, and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer start garnering real Oscar consideration (they are absolutely wonderful in this movie) we will also have to start asking ourselves this: what does this film’s success mean for black people on film in the long run? Answer: not much, honestly.
The success of The Help won’t lead to more opportunities or better roles for black actors because The Help is exactly the kind of movie that Hollywood already loves to make. This movie-making/storytelling technique where a white person becomes a conduit for relating the stories of black people to a broad audience has popular for quite some time.
Glory, The Green Mile, Cry Freedom, Imitation of Life, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mississippi Burning, The Last King of Scotland, A Time to Kill, and plenty of other films all flirt with socially relevant subject matter and stories that center around black life but choose to view these stories through a white lens, making the white characters the focal point.
And as brilliant as the black actors and actresses have been in these films (Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker won Oscars for their roles in Glory and The Last King of Scotland, respectively) it hasn’t meant that more roles have been available to black actors. Hollywood knows what it knows and continues to churn out movies that fit a very neat pattern.
Every once in a while it steps outside of its comfort zone, like “casting a woman of color (Zoe Saldana) as the star of a shoot ‘em up action flick”:http://www.thegrio.com/entertainment/zoe-saldana-battles-to-the-box-office-with-colombiana.php (Colombiana), but mostly Hollywood is averse to any type of “risk.”
In his interview for the HBO documentary The Black List, Oscar winner Louis Gossett, Jr. said that after he won the Academy Award for his role as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman, he couldn’t find work. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t find a role that he liked, but that he couldn’t find any work at all. Success simply has not translated to more success with regards to black people and film.
When we start seeing films more along the lines of Night Catches Us, Medicine for Melancholy, I Will Follow, Mooz-Lum, and the soon to be released The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 becoming mega box office successes, the tide may began to change.
It’s a mixed bag when it comes to quality, to be sure, but each in their own way represents a shift in the narrative of black people on film. They are stories under-told or ignored completely by Hollywood and audiences of Hollywood movies. At the point where these independently made films start clocking studio type box office numbers that we will have to consider that audiences are thirsty for something new and make appropriate adjustments.
The Help simply isn’t new. It is the same type of Disneyification of complex racial issues that we have become accustomed to over the years. This one just made a better ploy for our wallets than the others.