I've said my piece about The Help, and I'm satisfied with it, and feel no little need to revisit my case in the face of the film's defenders. I have noted that some of the film's defenders have been a tad excitable in a potentially, um, opportunistic fashion, and frankly I'm not surprised that whoever wrote the headline for the John McWhorter piece about the film (and for all I know it could have been McWhorter himself) went there and wrote "The Help Isn't Racist. Its Critics Are." I don't know why the writer didn't just drop the other shoe and add , "And Should Be Lynched." But whatever. This is the sort of agit-contrarianism that The New Republic has been specializing in for decades, and could actually teach Slate a thing or two about, but whatever. Still. As one of my fellow cinecrophiles pointed out to me in suppressed-sputtering outrage, the piece's author, John McWhorter, warming up to his impassioned defense, casually appears to slander a movie much beloved of our ilk early on, to wit: "This is a 'feel-good movie for a cowardly nation'? How could it be that this film, hardly The Sorrow and the Pity but honest and thoroughly affecting, is being treated like a remake of Imitation of Life?" Now forgetting the question begged concerning just how McWhorter apprehends the Marcel Ophuls film, just what is he getting at about a "remake" of Imitation of Life? Is he not aware of the fact that two films were made of Fannie Hurst's book Imitation of Life in the first place? Is he talking about the 1934 John M. Stahl version being remade, or the 1959 Douglas Sirk film being remade? Does he even have any idea of what he's talking about at all? (We'll need a bit of time to get to that last question.)
I'm gonna take a wild guess and say that McWhorter means the 1959 film, and, further, that the 1959 film is the only one McWhorter knows exists. Which is kind of weird, because THAT film is pretty largely beloved of a lot of people who've seen a lot of films, some of whom are practicing professional film critics who didn't particularly like The Help. But I don't think McWhorter feels that a remake of that film would upset critics because it would desecrate a sacred high modernist text. I think he's saying that the film is a genuine example of the condescension certain critics complain about with respect to The Help. And this is a staggering charge, because the film is, as a matter of fact, one of the most trenchant, ironical, and moving films about racism ever made, and a film that pays more real respect to its African-American characters, and to African-American culture, than any made in Hollywood up to that time, and most made in Hollywood since. AND, one doesn't really have to look all that far underneath its glossy Ross-Hunter-produced surfaces to see that; in fact the surfaces are entirely functional within Sirk's scheme. That is to say, its high modernist scheme is (potentially) easily discernable even to those who claim to deplore, God forgive me for using the term, "cultural vegetables."
So what's McWhorter on about? Well, maybe we should go back to The Sorrow and the Pity, a film made by the son of a Sirk contemporary, an epic, complex, also highly ironical work that is not asking the viewer to commend it on grounds of "honesty" or being "affecting." And here we come back to the question of whether McWhorter, not to put it vulgarly or anything, has any idea of what the fuck he's talking about. Well, apparently he knows a bit about linguistics, he's written a bunch of books about linguistics and race, and he's a contributing editor at The New Republic. And he apparently believes that these credentials confer upon him the privilege that so many multi-degree-laden brilliant people have, the privilege of not taking film seriously enough to actually go to the trouble of picking actual apropos examples for your little parallel constructions, of just arbitrarily picking one film from Column A of the "serious" cinematic canon (and a documentary, at that) and the other film from Column B of what you think are schlocky movie melodramas featuring a black maid. Well, sorry, John McWhorter, that won't do. But it also won't make any difference to say it won't do, because...well, I don't wanna go off on a rant. (But if I did want to go off on a rant, it would have something to do with how fucked our cultural discourse is, and how it's just getting/gonna get worse...)
And if you still need convincing that, expertise in linguistics and multiple degrees aside, McWhorter's pretty much full of shit, here's the kicker to his piece: "The Help’s director and producer Tate Taylor, white, grew up with a black maid. She’s still alive, and in the film as the first of the maids after Minny to testify for Skeeter. For the record, Tate brought her to the premiere of the film. She loved it." Oh, well in that case, forget anybody said anything.