Here’s why ‘The Help’ is an OG of the “white savior” movies
The Help stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play two maids rising above their situation from working for socialite white families in the 1960s; as well as Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Allison Janey who play said socialites.
With a full cast of amazing actresses, it’s hard to not get an enjoyable film. There is some room for improvement, though. Ironically enough, this movie about racial segregation could have benefited from being more centered around the subjects of the discrimination.
On the one hand, The Help seems to show some of the injustice that African-American houseworkers had to withstand. On the other hand, the way this movie portrays the struggles that these women endured is problematic. We’ve seen this problem in the media in Game of Thrones where Daenerys spends most of her arc freeing the subjugated, earning her the title of “breaker of chains”.
A couple of years ago we also saw the same issue in Green Book where the spotlight is taken away from the jazzist Don Shirley and is focused on his white driver. These are all examples of the “white savior” trope.
What’s the “white savior” trope, anyway? It typically features a white main character who helps other non-white characters from an unfortunate circumstance. In the case of The Help, the white savior would be Skeeter (Emma Stone). We could of course argue that her character recognizes the problems that Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) face but that wouldn’t be enough.
The problem isn’t that Skeeter is against racism and is willing to support these women, the problem is that the story is told in a way that seems like the reason Aibileen and Minny ever overcome their obstacles is because of Skeeter.
Shifting the focus of the story to the journey Skeeter goes through to research & publish her book is really a way to deny the oppressed the opportunity to tell their stories. The main character of the story ends up being Skeeter, a white woman, which makes The Help more appealing to a white audience.
By having a main white character, it is easier for white people to feel identified with the movie. As a result, The Help ends up being catered for a white audience which has even been brought up as an issue by Viola Davis herself.
Not only is it unfair to make discriminators the main focus of a story that’s supposedly meant to be about the people being discriminated against, it is also harmful. The real issue is that it minimizes the actions of the victims of racism and makes the “white savior” actions seem like the actual game-changer.
It’s as if the whole story is only validated once a white person acknowledges the oppression and takes action. This ends up giving the idea to the audience that the bravery of the discriminated people can never amount to anything so it’s necessary for a privileged person to intervene. In the case of The Help, we have the infamous pie scene which was not a good enough revenge by its own but had to be featured in a book to gain importance.
The white savior problem is not only a problem of the movie adaptation but of the book as well. The Help was written by Kathryn Stockett who is a white woman herself. Isn’t this oddly similar to Skeeter’s plot?
Later on, the movie adaptation was directed by Tate Taylor, this time a white man. While it is absolutely possible that both Kathryn & Tate are against racism, it would have been a much better idea to let the black community speak for themselves.