The debate over 'The Help' is really getting ugly.
Before the film's release a week ago, initial reviews generally praised the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel for transforming a seldom-addressed facet of African-American life in the Jim Crow South -- the often humiliating experiences of black maids working for white families -- into well-crafted, even uplifting Hollywood entertainment. Then came a backlash of criticism of the film (and, implicitly, of the reviewers who praised it), arguing that the movie was, in fact, a racial whitewash, a perpetuation of old Mammy stereotypes and a trivialization of the actual struggles of black Civil Rights activists that occurred at the time, all filtered through the consciousness of a white heroine (and white filmmakers) and meant to relieve white audiences of their guilt over the racial injustices of the past while letting them off the hook for the persistence of milder forms of racism today.
That's some serious backlash, but now comes the counterbacklash, arguments from essayists that 'The Help' is a lot subtler and more nuanced in its portrayal of race relations in 1963 Mississippi, and in its portrayal of the conflicted feelings of the maids toward their employers and their children, than the movie's detractors give it credit for; that the detractors are conditioned to see racism in any attempt by white writers and filmmakers to address the lives of black foik, especially in that strife-torn era; and that this close-minded, knee-jerk reaction to the film is, in fact, racist.
There's a lot of baggage to unpack, then, in both the backlash and the counterbacklash. But what no one seems to be addressing is why the argument over 'The Help' has become so bitter and why the stakes seem so high. Now, I come neither to bury 'The Help' nor to praise it, but I think I know why everyone is so worked up, and the reason is something both sides of the debate can probably agree upon.