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August 20, 2011


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Matt Zoller Seitz

Thanks for taking a swipe at a tremendously irritating piece. The "Film X isn't racist, its critics are" construction is always a cover for shoddy thinking, unless there is specific evidence to back it up, and in this case there isn't any.

That supposedly definitive, "here endeth the argument" ending is a howler, too. The director's childhood maid liked the movie. Case closed.

And I don't believe he has seen either version of "Imitation of Life." If he had, he wouldn't have brought them into the discussion, because both films are infinitely better than "The Help," and ask more of their viewers.

The Siren

"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."

Hell YES. I could go on...and on and on...but have no need, because you do it so well here. Bless you a thousand times over, Glenn. I just didn't have the heart. The New Republic. That sentence was in The New Freaking Republic, Otis Ferguson's magazine. Jesus wept.

If some of us immerse ourselves in a neo-classicist outlook that privileges love of old movies over the cultural obligation to get hip to the work of Miranda July, well, goddamnit, look at what we're up against.

A cinecrophiliac's work is never done.

Brian Darr

Thank you for writing this. I haven't yet seen the Help (or, for that matter, the Sorrow and the Pity or Raisin in the Sun, also mentioned in his piece), but reading that line about Sirk's masterpiece forced me to suppress a sputter too (and all but ruined McWhorter's chances of convincing me to choose his side in this debate over that of the Association of Black Women Historians. Well, at least not without seeing the movie anyway.)

Is it an irony of McWhorter's line of attack that Imitation of Life, in addition to being all that you say in regard to racism, surfaces, et cetera, was also just the kind of box-office success he positions as the preferable antidote to the "visually peculiar, spiritually ambiguous, narratively desultory art-house opus" he thinks the Help's critics would prefer? Audiences made the Sirk film one of the top-ten grossing films of 1959, ranked just behind either Pillow Talk or North By Northwest depending on the chart one turns up. Or maybe that's no irony; maybe he's picking on Sirk's film because he thinks 1959 audiences couldn't possibly have embraced a film about racism that wasn't as backwards as some of the laws on the books at that time. If so, he's wrong.

Bruce Reid

That's a silly article, all right, though in fairness a quick search shows McWhorter is at least aware of both versions and was probably referring to the source novel being remade. His book The Word on the Street, in discussing Hattie McDaniel's avoidance of black dialect, references "Hollywood's other black maid-on-call, Louise Beavers (Imitation of Life)...."


And Winning the Race has the following odd salute to the film's portrayal of Annie: "In the 1959 film Imitation of Life, one of the most striking scenes is when Lana Turner's black maid Juanita Moore, striking a tone masterfully poised between the deference required in the era and pointed self-assertion, informs Turner of her rich personal life, which includes 'several lodges.' Hall's character is just a maid--the social network she belonged to was by no means a cocktail-sipping black-bourgeoisie world, and she was not the type on her way on her way to moving to a split-level in the 'burbs."


I call it odd not just because I don't know where the name Hall came from, but because what I can glean from the surrounding pages McWhorter is holding Annie up as an exemplar of a historical black middle class ignored by sociologists who'd prefer black Americans cling to a "meme of self-affirming alienation" (two pages earlier; the preview offers no page numbers), a perpetual state of outrage over offenses long passed. Yet his argument is explicitly that figures such as this have abandoned the poor neighborhoods where the sociologists, in their nasty, left-leaning way, claim they are not to be found; an odd way to dismiss their point.

And it's also strange, of course, because both the point of the scene--Lora's benign indifference ("you never asked") being just another racist façade--and the point of the movie, with its many pained and conflicting signals about the economic aspirations over which McWhorter enthuses, seem not to have struck him at all.

No, you're right, that's not strange at all, regrettably.

The Siren

Bruce, hmmmmm.

Do we (you, me, Glenn, anybody) think it's possible that McWhorter has been misjudged on this point, and by "treated like a remake of Imitation of Life," he was referring to the indignation that would follow an enduring classic being remade?

If so, it is a bad sentence that does not convey that, but it automatically becomes a great deal less objectionable. I'd be extremely relieved, and would owe McWhorter an apology.

Dan Callahan

This kind of cultural ignorance in regard to film is not acceptable. I'm still surprised when I find this cheerful ignorance in otherwise bright or cultured people, and I don't want to stop being surprised about it, ever.

It's as if certain writers think that they don't need to do any background checks or readings about "the movies." A rudimentary Film Studies 101 class would have set him right about Sirk. This is the sort of thing that should be continually called out until it shames people into at least doing some basic research about a film before they write about it so inaccurately.

Bruce Reid

Siren, that's an interpretation I hadn't considered. I suppose McWhorter might have had that in mind, though as you say it's a stretch to take that meaning from his actual words. I think he just plucked out a famous movie from the past concerning maids and didn't consider the matter beyond that.

Which, so I'm not misunderstood, is why I don't consider what I posted so much a correction to Glenn's initial post but more an addendum. I found it unlikely that Imitation of Life, novel and both film versions, wouldn't have come to the attention of a black linguistic scholar, and hunted down his previous references on a hunch. But awareness is not understanding, or even paying attention, and I'd consider McWhorter's breezily narrow reading (granted, in a context unrelated to the merits of the film as a work of art) of one of Sirk's most pointed scene proof of Glenn's contention that he, like so many supposed deep thinkers, enjoys the "privilege of not taking film seriously enough."


That's got to be one of the most "I Know You Are But What Am I?" titles I've ever seen on a professional piece of journalism.

Dan Callahan

Aha, so he at least knows there were different film versions of the story. Maybe I should do a little research myself before jumping on the warpath. But I'm still not convinced he understands the Sirk version at all.

"one of the most striking scenes is when Lana Turner's black maid Juanita Moore, striking a tone masterfully poised"

Deliberate repetition of "striking," or lazy word usage? Linguist, heal thyself.

Nathaniel R

Hmmm. I appreciate what everyone is saying here I was also annoyed by the title of the article and what I thought was a swipe at the great Imitation of Life... but i hardly think it's fair to denounce a 4 page argument because of two irritating lines (one of which he may not have written) or three if you want to include the ending... okay four if you include the generalization bit about 'perpetually incomplete black people' and yes, yes, five if you include the strange snippiness about art films. ;)

BUT there *are* points worth discussing in his article like the lack of clarity as to what "owning" or "coming to terms with" racism might mean in a film. He writes:

"And what, exactly, do we mean by “coming to terms”? We must know, if these critics’ complaints are to qualify as constructive counsel. The difficulty of conceiving an answer is indicative. It is not unreasonable to wonder if there is a plausible development in film that could ever qualify as having done the deed. Is complaint the goal itself?"

And personally i wholly agree with him about the nuance thing -- I'm not sure how one misses them when someone as gifted as Viola is bringing them even when the script forgets to -- and about the frustrating and common complaint that the maids had too much fun together as if they should have only been portrayed as miserable and angry in every scene. I've read that in a few places now and that beef makes absolutely no sense in regards to everything I know of human nature.

@Dan -- i'm not sure a rudimentary Film 101 is a panacea. I hear horror stories all the time from readers about what their professors in film courses say (dismissing whole genres, refusing to watch films from before [insert year here], and the like. Gaping abysses in cultural literacy happen in the most unfortunate places. And to the nicest films.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Given that all the bad reviews of The Help have accused the film and its makers of being racist (including even the generally laid-back MZS), I can't necessarily blame McWhorter for responding in kind. On Imitation, I suspect he's reacting more to the movie's reputation as the ne plus ultra of the 'tragic mulatto' genre, but some comments above make one suspect he really is making a subtler point than that, albeit one not perfectly phrased.

D Cairns

"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?"

Even given that he's kind of a sloppy writer (hey, I sympathise), I don't think the above sentence lends itself to any other interp: The Help is "honest and thoroughly affecting," as opposed to (a remake of) Imitation of Life. The most charitable reading I can give that leans heavily on the "remake" part: maybe he's saying that the Sirk film, however forward-thinking in its day, wouldn't look so advanced if presented as a new work today.

In which case, that might be true in a few unimportant ways but would be quite untrue in a lot of essential ones.

Glenn Kenny

Okay, we've established that McWhorter is not only aware of, but has seen the Sirk film; to my mind this makes the slap at it more mystifying, not less. I'm not demanding or even asking that McWhorter explain himself; as The Siren and others have intuited, I was just pointing out an example of a certain tendency in punditry that dismisses the proposition that some care ought to be taken in these respects, because after all, they're only MOVIES, and I can't be bothered with, etcetera, etcetera. If McWhorter had cited, say, "Birth of a Nation," I doubt that even admirers of that film would have batted an eyelash. But he didn't.

As I said, I'm happy with my review of "The Help" and stand by it, but I do find curious Mr. The Bastard's position that since "all" the bad reviews of the film "have accused the film and its makers of being racist" he "can't necessarily blame McWhorter for responding in kind." Why's that? Because to insult "The Help" and its makers is to insult McWhorter? I didn't know he was involved in the film. And in any event, the actual and rather tiresome substance of his piece doesn't work so hard to make his racist charge stick as it does to paint non-"Help"-loving critics as wet-blanket aesthetes who would have LOVED the picture so long as it had been made as a stark downer of an art film that nobody wanted to see, ew, ick. I always thought reviewing a movie based on what you think it ought to have been a bit of a bad faith act, but here McWhorter ups the ante in an admittedly audacious way, painstakingly constructing and deriding what he imagines to be a critic-proof version of what is in his reality that thing that the fuddy duddy buzzkill critics just CAN'T STAND, that is, an Honest and Affecting and Colorful Film That The Director's Black Maid From Childhood Loved.

In any event, he's welcome to his fantasy, although whether it ought to have found a home in the pages of any magazine is open to question. I do have to admit I have to laugh whenever I see a "Help" defender call Bryce Dallas Howard's character wonderfully nuanced, or what have you, on account that—can you believe it?—she actually considers herself a liberal. That's a good one. If I recall correctly, Archie Bunker considered himself broad-minded too, and yet was still a cartoon, just like that Howard character.

The Siren

Glenn, I think most of us here are latching on to exactly what you're saying; it isn't as though American film history has a dearth of films that show African American domestic servants in a manner we now find offensive. So why pick on Imitation of Life?

D Cairns, you are never a sloppy writer; and I think you're entirely right here.

Glenn Kenny

UPDATE: Some Dude On Twitter™ chastizes me: "McWhorter is a close friend of mine and I promise you he knows mor about film than most critics have forgotten. And I know that he owns and has watched and loves both versions of IMITATION. I've watched them with him. But hey, if you can't attack the argument, attack the person. You do a lot of that, and it isn't criticism. It's brawling."

Aw, gee, that made me feel kind of awful. I responded, in three tweets: 1) "Well, that's not evident from his choice of examples, which is either lazy or mistaken about 'Imitation of Life.'" 2) 'And my attack wasn't personal. I used a fair amount of feisty rhetoric but I didn't say 'McWhorter is a bad guy.' I said he made a poor comparison." 3) "But here, for sake of comparison, is a personal attack: Fuck you and your stupid complaints, you fucking whiner."

That wasn't very nice of me at all. And then it occured to me: this guy is getting on my dick for taking strong issue with an article called "'The Help' Isn't Racist. Its Critics Are." Seriously.

Matt Zoller Seitz

That Fuzzy Bastard: I never said "The Help" was racist in its portrayal of its black characters, only that it took the predictable approach to its subject matter, viewing it mainly from a white perspective while pretending to do no such thing. "Paternalistic" is probably a better word to describe the film's approach. If it's racist, it's a passive and roundabout variety of racism. The actual character portrayals are sympathetic and thoughtful, if one-note.

I am not aware of any pieces accusing the film of racism, except of the roundabout sort. Most of the complaints have centered on the film's structure, its rather self-congratulatory tone, and its decision to make it very easy to root for or against certain characters.

I therefore find the inflammatory headline of McWhorter's piece -- and Owen Gleiberman's very similar piece at Entertainment Weekly -- rather curious. There is a touch of Straw Man-ism to the whole thing.

Dan Coyle

Speaking of Gleiberman, why does he still talk about hating Secrets and Lies if that's supposed to impress people?


U r racist and thank god i dont listen to critic, if a critic like a movie than i know it must be good and than i go see it. lol. noboyd like critic.


Good one, bill.

Sam O. Brown

Glenn wrote: "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."

Yes! Just like studying or writing on literature and/or theater somehow translates into possessing abilities to write critically on film. (You know, it is ultimately just text anyways and the images only serve to merely illustrate the narrative. ) Glenn, thank you for highlighting one of the many fallacies that can be found in so much writing on film.

Sam O. Brown

Correction, as the sentence is a bit redundant:

(You know, it is ultimately just text anyways and the images serve merely to illustrate the narrative.)

BTW: I found CATS & DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE to be atrocious filmmaking, but my cat liked it.

That Fuzzy Bastard

I wonder if any of the people sniffing about McWhorter's film knowledge has ever read a single race theorist discussing the tragic mulatto trope, particularly as it plays out in the 1934 version of IMITATION (the one I suspect McWhorter was thinking of), or is familiar with the use of the term "Peola" in the 60s and 70s.

Sam O. Brown

That Fuzzy Bastard: What difference does that make?

That Fuzzy Bastard

Sam: It would suggest that all the people yelling at McWhorter for not knowing enough about Sirk deserve a few brickbats for not knowing enough about the actual subject here: the depiction of race in American film, particularly the place of the 1934 IMITATION. I generally respect the purely aesthetic concerns which dominate this blog, and GK's distaste for "special pleading", but when one steps into a discussion of a film's relationship to actual people and actual history, one has to know some things not revealed by a film's production credits.

Sam O. Brown

That Fuzzy Bastard: What makes you assume people here do not know "enough about the actual subject here: the depiction of race in American film, particularly the place of the 1934 IMITATION", and why does one have to know,consider, or discuss these things in regard to the value of a film?

Sam O. Brown

That Fuzzy Bastard: Why does any art need to have to an allegiance or responsibility to actual people or history?


Anyone here willing to say they'd swear under oath that they unequivocally know the difference between Derek Luke and Rob Brown?

Kimberly Elise and Elise Neal?

Thought not. GUARANTEE-- GUARANTEE-- most mush-hearted well-intentioned white liberal critics complaining about "savior narratives" couldn't pick any random 5 non-Denzel/Eddie/Will black actors out of a police lineup, nor would any of you actively pay money to see Morris Chestnutt/Columbus Short joint.

Stop pretending you're all so enlightened.

Glenn Kenny

For those playing at home, "Peola" was the name of the maid's daughter in the 1934 version of "Imitation;" it was changed to "Sarah Jane" in the Sirk version. Some scholars/theorists will tell you that, not just from the '60s, but from the mid-thirties through the late '70s, "'Peola' was an epithet used by Blacks against light-skinned Black women who identified with mainstream white society." Interestingly enough, the actress who played Peola in the 34 picture was in fact African-American, Fredi Washington. Susan Kohner, who played Sarah Jane in the Sirk picture, was not. And she went on to mother both Chris and Paul Weitz, WTFIU. Okay, so I pass THAT test. Whew! (Mr. The Bastard, someday I'm going to post about the Oscar Micheaux biography I never wrote, because my agent at the time thought my proposal was too much of a bummer, and she was looking for a triumphant narrative.)

As for the challenge from our friend Lex "Where the white women at?" G, hell, I'd bet a lot of white Americans couldn't tell the difference between Chris Rock and Eric Dolphy. What that has to do with the discussion here pretty much escapes me. Oh, no, wait, you're just blowing off some of that pent-up, free-floating resentment. Whatever.


Not that it makes her casting any more racially sensitive, but Susan Kohner was the daughter of Mexico-born actress Lupita Tovar, who played Mina in Universal's Spanish-language version of Dracula.

The Siren

Glenn, and Kohner was also in All the Fine Young Cannibals, notable also for being the penultimate film of Louise Beavers, who played Delilah in the '34 Imitation of Life. A quick look at a 2009 post of mine that included All the Fine Young Cannibals AND Imitation of Life mentioned Kohner's role as, guess what, the tragic mulatto.

Really, Fuzzy, I often wonder if you realize the way you sound, or if you simply don't give a damn.

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