Matchup of the Day: The Help vs. The Secret Life of Bees
Variety’s recent article Academy Nominates All White Actors for Second Year in Row, not to mention a number of others, decried the lack of diversity in the Academy Award nominations. This, of course, is not a new phenomenon. The issue of how minorities are portrayed, or not portrayed, in film has been an issue for longer than many would care to acknowledge. In light of it being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and to revive our Matchup of the Day series, Flickchart offers this Civil Rights era matchup for your consideration. Though both films won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture, they were not necessarily well received by everyone as progressive depictions of race in cinema. What are your thoughts?
On the Wikipedia page for The Help under the See Also section, there’s a link to “White savior narrative in film“. Without much effort, one can find a number of articles that mention white saviorism and The Help using Google. Complex lists it as one of the 10 Lamest “White Savior” Movies. Flavorwire isn’t any kinder with its White Savior Movies, Ranked, calling the film “perhaps the most egregious of recent white savior narratives.”
The article Selling the White Savior Narrative: The Help, Theatrical Previews, and US Movie Audiences by Kerry B. Wilson offers the definition “White savior narratives centralize and normalize the white experience through the representation of people of color as unable to escape their social and cultural marginalization without the guidance and leadership of a single white actor.” The author goes into considerable detail analyzing how just the trailer for the film reinforces this notion. Viewing it in that context is somewhere between disturbing and hilarious.
The Secret Life of Bees, on the other hand, when searched with “white savior narrative” doesn’t appear to yield results as readily. Maybe this is because Dakota Fanning’s character is not really a savior in the film, but is instead herself saved by a prosperous family of black women. In The Help, Emma Stone is a racially enlightened (some criticisms say improbably so) journalist who encourages the black maids in her community to tell their stories in the face of great peril. The success of the resulting book secures her a career in New York City, while improving the lives of the subjects as well. The threat of racially charged retribution is never really made palpable in The Help, however, as the tone of the film is primarily lighthearted. Bees, at least, shows that the threat of racial violence is a part of daily life. Looking at this Bees trailer, you’ll notice that Queen Latifah’s character is the first one shown.
Whether Bees is a white savior movie or not is probably up for debate, but maybe this post from a Black Hair Media discussion thread about The Help is indicative of the general consensus among black audiences:
“I want to see Black actors and actresses LEADING in movies. I’m tired of seeing movies that are supposedly about Black life/minority life starring some white savior. Dangerous Minds, Secret Life of Bees, The Blind Side…it just never ends.”
One solution to the issue might be found in this TPM article In Defense Of White Savior Movies by Ahiza Garcia. In it, the author points out
The Help was a fictitious fantasy about a young Southern woman spurring a domestic workers movement, but its talented African- American actresses took advantage of the platform. They acted their asses off, overshadowing the female lead, and it served them well: Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar the next year, has worked steadily since, and Viola Davis now stars in her own network show. Regardless of their plots, these movies shine a spotlight on minority actors and enable them to snag high-profile lead roles—so that they can later star in better movies, whose nonwhite characters empower themselves.
Just how long minority viewers will have to wait for this flowering of diversity is another matter.