The question lurks in the back the mind, for some of us liberal-minded people, when we sit down to watch a movie like The Help, or 1989’s Glory. It bothers us, that the story centers around black peoples’ lives, but one white person is always nosing around their business, often getting top billing on the poster. We’re not sure why.
Here’s one easy answer: If the movie had no white people in it, white people wouldn’t watch it. There are many, many white people in America, and filmmakers would like to get them to pay to watch their movie.
For Glory, there’s also another easy answer: the facts in the movie were largely based on the personal letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick). It would have been tough to cut him out of the picture, considering.
There are other reasons, which are somewhat perplexing in and of themselves, and difficult to pin down. Let’s think about it for a moment.
Ask yourself this question: who was the hero of Glory? Yes—they were all heroes. Understood. But who was REALLY the hero? Those predisposed to see cultural conspiracy everywhere they look will say the film is structured so as to make the audience react most positively to Shaw, the white leader of a regiment of black soldiers. The story is told through Shaw’s point of view. The struggles of the regiment largely mirror Shaw’s personal and moral struggles—what will he do when the racist quartermaster refuses to supply them properly? When he encounters discipline problems, which may arise from situations he does not understand, how does he reconcile his lack of understanding and the martial code?
I would argue Shaw is actually rather boring, and intentionally so. He is not a racist. The real-life Shaw was an abolitionist, and probably somewhere in the 99th percentile of higher enlightenment when it came to race relations for an American at the time. Broderick portrays him as fundamentally decent, extremely logical, and somewhat naïve. These traits should not jump off the screen. But I would agree with the conspiracy theorists that, yes, Shaw does end up coming off as a little bit awesome, despite being really boring.
The reason? He has power. And his black soldiers have none. Some of the most compelling moments in Glory come when he chooses to exercise that power. When Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) is insulted by the paymaster and forgoes his paycheck—which is less than a white soldier’s—and Trip (Denzel Washington) inspires the entire regiment to start tearing up all of their paychecks, the confrontation is exciting. But the payoff to the entire scene only comes when Shaw joins in—“If you men will take no pay…..<loooooong pause>…..none of us will!”
There are numerous other whiz-bang moments like that in Glory, and it’s always Shaw coming to the rescue, because he’s the only one who can. It is quite depressing, when you actually consider what constitutes a dramatic victory for the 54th Massachusetts—we cheer when the men supplied with shoes. Shoes! The country they are fighting for has so little regard for them that it refuses to supply them with shoes! And it always seems like Shaw is jumping in with the punch line, after his black soldiers have set up the joke.
The reason white people always must play such prominent roles in movies like this is because of the power disparity. An inspirational movie must have something powerful and dramatic happen, and this powerful and dramatic thing must happen in the public sphere. It cannot be an interior movement—that is for art-house movies, not large-scale entertainments like The Help and Glory. And inevitably, for something powerful and dramatic to happen, and to be clearly identified as such by the audience, there has to be at least one white person involved.
That white person is Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) in The Help. And the dramatic event is her decision to collect the stories of black house maids in Southern homes, raising the children of white mothers. There is something slightly perverse going on here, which a cultural conspiracy theorist might be quick to pick up on. The implicit message may be that all of the incredibly complex emotions these maids might have felt might not be worth our notice, unless a pretty white Ole Miss grad decides to write it down and put it in a book.
But I would argue that’s more a limitation of the form, and less a critique of our own subconscious racial hang-ups. Popular movies need something like an underground book or an enlightened colonel, as a catalyst for all the juicy, crowd-pleasing parts. And white people supply the books and the colonels.
One can still have widely varying degrees of success, in making films of this kind. Glory is inspirational and deeply moving, although not particularly thought-provoking. The Help intermittently draws an emotional response, but I think it has too much going on, and the scattered plot lines sort of fizz out collectively. The performances are all quite good. I didn’t react ecstatically to Viola Davis like others did. I find myself often overwhelmed by her severity. The woman has the saddest eyes on earth. It would be nice to see her in something where the eyes don’t match quite so well the grimness of her life.
The picture of southern life is authentic, in that it comes from a southern source. Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, grew up in a household like the ones described in her book– although she came of age in the ‘70s, and her books is set at the dawn of the Civil Rights era. But I could’ve pieced together the setting, in its entirety, with bits from other movies. As a Korean-born child of immigrants raised in the Midwest, is it too much to ask that a two and a half hour movie tell me something about pre-civil rights era Mississippi that does not conform to my previous stereotypes?
Fictional stories about race relations remain tricky, in 2011. There are few successful examples which are not forced to engage in some kind of sentimentality. Race is still a very troublesome topic. Even when we’re making everything up, we still have trouble talking about it honestly, or convincingly. But I won’t complain too much. Perhaps the best way to tackle the subject is to use every arrow in the artistic quiver, sentimentality included.