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August 20, 2011

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B rian Dauth

McWhorter is a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, a prominent right-wing think tank. He has written in the past about the NAACP's increasing irrelevance as it "sniffs around for increasingly elusive cases of discrimination" (he should talk to my husband who lost a job when a white patron at the cafe he was working at slapped his hand. He complained about the act, and was told he had to go on unpaid leave for one week because of his behavior. After the suspension, he would be considered for re-hire. Of course, the white patron was hyper-attended to by management to assuage her trauma of having a black man object to be slapped).

McWhorter has also written that “. . . a month dedicated to black history now feels like a month dedicated to seatbelts. Both are now part of the fabric of American life, with black history almost as insistent upon any wakeful person’s attention as the pinging sound in a car when you don’t buckle up” and that “[R]acism is, in fact, not a decisive obstacle to black success today.” These quotes (the articles they come from can be found on the web) can begin to contextualize McWhorter’s stance.

The director himself has also issued some interesting pronouncements. From an interview located at The Griot (http://www.thegrio.com/entertainment/the-help-director-people-are-too-critical-of-this-film.php?page=1)

“People are being too critical of this film . . . It’s so perplexing to me. Kathryn set out to write a book not about victims. She wrote a book about four women that were victims of circumstances of their surroundings.”

“The scene where Viola Davis sitting on a toilet in a garage in 108 degrees, and then a white woman comes out and tells her to hurry up was visually brutal. To me that's worse than seeing a lynching. It just is.”

“There is no way that a piece of cinema for 2 hours and 17 minutes is going to have fully flushed [sic] out and real life characters.”
My husband (who was born and raised in a rural part of the Deep South) saw the film and liked parts of it, but felt something was missing – something that he has yet to be able to put his finger on. He felt that parts were right and parts were also completely wrong, and these aspects intersected in strange ways.

It may be that Sirk’s fictive world made of whole melodramatic cloth was able to reach an insight/truth that Taylor’s combination of life experience/interviews with actual maids/fictional storytelling cannot achieve. As a result, THE HELP feels less accurate/truthful, than IMITATION OF LIFE (1959). What occurs in IMITATION feels connected to the larger racist construction of American society in a way that the events of THE HELP do not.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Sam: Your question of why art needs to have an allegiance (etc.) is a question that's been batted around on this blog plenty, and is probably semi-unanswerable. But to narrow the question to what's going on here, let's review: McWhorter (a writer I'm no fan of, for the record) made a reference to a hypothetical remake of IMITATION OF LIFE as though it were self-evidently something that would be upsetting in the content of contemporary race relations. GK and others got huffy about the perceived insult to Sirk. I suggest that a scholar of race relations may have a much more critical perspective on IMITATION (and is probably thinking less of Sirk than of the infamous and very popular 1934 IMITATION), which was very much used to reinforce a "God made the races separate" narrative.

GK, like The Siren, seems to think that as long as the movies are well-made, they are not to be held up for opprobrium. I suggest that McWhorter may harbor residual dislike for a movie that hewed so strongly to the idea that it was the natural order of things to doom a mulatto. Hence my belief that elements well outside the frame are relevant to this discussion, and the irrelevance of comments like The Siren's "I know lots of movies this actress was in!"

This is all kind of a tempest in a tiny little teapot---we're talking about one sentence and a probably-not-written-by-McWhorter headline in a four-page piece. But it's a topic that gets whacked around a lot on this site, and I think this is just the latest round.

Glenn Kenny

"GK, like The Siren, seems to think that as long as the movies are well-made, they are not to be held up for opprobrium." Yes, that's why I've devoted so much of my career to spirited defenses of the indubitably well-made "Triumph of the Will." Man—what was the name of that Old Dirty Bastard album with that "got your money" song on it? Seriously, that's just fucking weak. I'll try to restrain myself from expressing the resentment that I feel on behalf of all cinephiles for being talked down to by the likes of Mr. The Bastard, Richard Brody, Dan Kois and various and sundry others who like to paint us as Miss Havishams desperately coddling our objects of reverence. You've got a case to make against Sirk's "Imitation Of Life?" Make it, pal—I promise I won't delete the comment.

That said, it is a tempest in a teapot, and perhaps my disapprobation at Mr. McWhorter muddying his waters with what seemed an obscure and off the mark swipe at a great film was perhaps overstated. I still have no answer to the question.

Also, "he didn't write the headline" is really turning into "the dog ate my homework" of print bullshit rationalization. I'm sure McWhorter didn't write the headline, but he apparently doesn't object to it either. Call me lucky, or intimidating, but in 30 years of writing for print, in publications as diverse as the Voice, Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Playboy, the Times, etc., I was almost never not at least consulted on headlines, and if I was presented with one I had a problem with, I could always work it out with the editor. It would be a shame if a thinker so esteemed as Mr. McWhorter, writing for a journal as august as Even The Liberal New Republic, was denied something resembling the same privilege.

The Siren

TFB: The first part of my comment, with the All the Fine Young Bastards reference, was addressed to Glenn, and offered for his enjoyment. The idea of your enjoying or even registering something as plebeian as a bit of cross-movie trivia never entered my mind.

On the other hand, thank you for answering my last query with such emphatic finality.

Sam O. Brown

Fuzzy Bastard: You have not really answered my question: in what ways are sociological or historical issues relevant to aesthetic evaluation?

Michael Adams

The box office of Sirk's Imitation is more impressive when you consider that it wasn't shown in some places because of the racial content. I saw most of Sirk's fifties films in my small Alabama town but not this one. My family, by the way, was too poor to afford a maid but would have if it had been possible.

By the way, what would Stanley Just-Me-by-My-Intentions-Not-the-Results Kramer have made of this tumult?

bill

What would Stanley Kramer have made of this? He would have made THE HELP in the first place!

Partisan

Are there any critics in the last forty years who think highly, or even moderately, of Stanley Kramer?

B rian Dauth

Sam: Adorno argued that one of the formal elements of a work of art was the manner in which the artist grappled with the socio-historical material and the tension that resulted from this engagement. But while he stated that this process/tension was a part of an art work, he also argued that the art work was incapable of expressing an historical truth in anything but a dialectical fashion, and could serve no socially useful function.

So while historical/cultural issues are essential to aesthetic engagement/discussion for Adorno, there is no correspondence truth that emerges by which the work can be judged (and what I have just written is a highly distilled and vulgar shorthand for some of the most sublime writings on asthetics I have know of).

D Cairns

The theory, put forward by TFB, that McWhorter was probably talking about the original 30s Imitation of Life makes me wonder what specialist readership the guy thinks he's addressing. Who are these movie-literate but thirties-centric readers who would immediately understand which movie he meant? Are they all scholars of race relations? Even if they were, I find it surprising that they are all presumed to know the original better than the (also hugely successful and much-discussed) remake.

So I think this defense really just confirms that the sentence is unclear and certainly fosters the impression that McWhorter hasn't thought his argument through.

jim emerson

I stopped reading his piece when I got to the "Imitation of Life" reference because it was clear he didn't know what he was writing about. Glad you took him on.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Sam: Depends on whether you think this discussion is primarily about THE HELP's, and IMITATION's, aesthetic value, or whether it's about its grappling with, or failure to grapple with, race. Which I think is the big ambiguity powering this discussion.

If you think these things can be discussed separately from each other, then it's quite possible to approve of Sirk's aesthetics while being ambivalent about his politics, or more accurately, to be approving or ambivalent about the 1934 version (which, @ D. Cairns, is quite familiar to anyone who's done elementary reading about racial tropes in American culture---I'm not even well-read in the field, and I'm plenty aware of the prominence of the 1934 film in the history of the tragic mulatto trope). If, on the other hand, you think these things can't be separated… Well, then your question is kind of tautological in the first place, right?

Ironically, I think THE HELP will be remembered (if at all, which is unlikely) as being much like the 1934 IMITATION---an ostensibly right-thinking film that's painfully embarrassing for its fundamentally illiberal habit of crushing individuals in the name of crafting emblems of race relations. McWhorter is very much the kind of guy Stanley Kramer made films for: desperate for strongly stated (and restated) messages, preferably without any nasty ambiguity. I just don't share GK's conviction that no one may dare make less-than-approving reference to the racial politics of aesthetically satisfying films.

D Cairns

But TFB, that's just what I was wondering -- is McWhorter writing for an audience solely composed of "anyone who's done elementary reading about racial tropes in American culture"? Because, even allowing for the word "elementary", I don't see that actually being his readership. And even amid that group, whatever size we judge it to be, who would read his sentence and immediately grasp that he MUST mean the 30s version?

And if he does mean the 30s version, my next thought is "How would I greet a remake of the 30s Imitation of Life... hmm, you mean like the one Sirk actually made? I would greet it joyously!"

So I'm afraid I just get more confused as to how to take that sentence.

Jaime

I for one have trouble telling Ed Lauter apart from Ted Levine. But I'm an awkwardly tall white guy so it's fine.

John M

I must say, having read McWhorter's piece, there's a lot more meat than is being discussed here.

But yes, let's focus a little more on the poorly written sentence about Sirk, the "kicker," and the headline. Remember the Alamo.

And one can love IMITATION OF LIFE while also being fairly certain a remake (a 2nd remake) would be lambasted by critics, not without some justification. To wit, I can't say I ever felt that Juanita Moore's character (the 1st remake) ever got past the symbol stage.

Glenn Kenny

That McWhorter was compelled to end the piece with that unspeakable the-director's-maid-loved-it anecdote is only one signal that that ain't meat, it's gristle.

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