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Guilty Pleasures

The Magical Negro & White Savior

Viola Davis is certainly getting a lot of attention because of her award nominating performance in The Help, which I’m still not boycotting. But over at Time, Touré questions whether The Help is The Most Loathsome Movie in America? My gut level reaction is still how bad can it be. It can’t be the most loathsome movie in America if Davis has her hands full with best actress nominations. Can it? Even if there are aspects of the movie that are completely unrealistic, this isn’t a historical documentary depicting the life of a domestic worker in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Movement. People watch movies to lose themselves in the story. They pay for approximately 120 minutes of make-believe. And so if there are underlying themes of oppression, racial inequality, and pigmentocracy being played out in the story, it’s still just a story. Albeit, a heavy one.

I sat out to write something more about this movie but I can’t. I still need to see it. So read this.

But when Touré called the production a Disneyfication of segregation, I felt myself rejecting my gut level reaction. Nothing about segregation should ever be Disneyfied. Finally, I’d read an argument to make finally understand why so many Blacks are opposed to such a movie. He poses four thought-provoking questions:

  • “Do whites like visiting a world where blacks are docile and controlled and the racial hierarchy is clear?”
  • “Do they [whites] like seeing a white girl saving blacks?”
  • “Could the success of The Help be divorced from national subconscious anxiety about a future that includes minority status for whites and the loss of total power, as symbolized by the first black President?”
  • “Is it easy to watch because of an incorrect sense of having reached a world beyond racism?”
 What’s my take? That first question is a huge one. We really are so far removed from the culture of 1960’s Mississippi that I don’t want to believe that whites like revisiting this kind of world. And…I hate to say it because it’s what everyone says when they talk about how far we’ve come in terms of racial equality, but our president is Black. That’s real Black History and if someday producers, directors, and screenwriters come together to memorialize his story, then it certainly needs to be factual. In that film, it will depict a man who isn’t docile or controlled and while there is a bit of murkiness in racial hierarchy it didn’t stop him from becoming POTUS — because this isn’t 1960s America.  While racism still exists on a large scale (particularly in Arizona right now) we’re really and truly divided by class. In the 1960s, class wasn’t murky. It was Black and white. (Oh fine. It was Black and White, I support racial equality in grammatical form, too.) 
But just because I don’t want to believe some Whites like to visit a world, even if only for two hours, where Blacks are docile and controlled doesn’t make it so. I’ve heard many a story about people’s parents and grandparents who start foaming at the mouth as soon as they see President Obama. They just can’t stand him and they just can’t stand to see Black people doing well. These folks might be a lost cause but hopefully there’s a special place in Hell for bigotry. Maybe they’re the kind of people who went in droves to see The Help but I have the inclination that people like that wouldn’t go to a movie with a Black female lead. Which means means that most white people who saw the film were simply reacting from their emotions from genius film editing and advertising in 45 second movie trailers. It could be so simple.
Still, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t something going on subconsciously for whites. That can’t be proved or disproved. It stands to reason that if the White man has a burden (and we all know he does), that White girls have them, too. Africa must be saved. African Americans must be saved. And White people have to be the ones to save them based on story plots in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Just off the top of my head, here are a half dozen or so White savior movies:  Losing Isaiah, The Blind Side, Precious, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Hairspray, and Invictus. I guess the answer to that second question is a resounding, yes. (Cue Project Pat. Don’t Save Her, She Don’t Wanna Be Saved.)
On the other hand, there’s also the stereotypical Magical Negro character who’s sole mission in life is to get the white protagonist out of trouble. Blacks are saviors of another sort and you know exactly what kind I’m talking about. There was Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, Bubba in Forest Gump, John Coffey in The Green Mile, Cash in The Family Man, Bagger Vance, and Abou Fatma in The Four Feathers. It’s interesting though, that 4 out of the 6 characters has some type of magical power. Is that the only way Blacks can be of use to White people? And since we all know that magic isn’t real, the message being sent to everyone is that Blacks are of no use to White people. Not unless they can do or be the impossible. The only way to change the roles African Americans are offered in Hollywood is to create a different kind of movie. It starts with screenwriting. To get rid of the Magical Negro and White Savior characters the writer(s) need to be aware of these offensive and outdated racial undertones and care enough to write something better.

About Bella

I’m an (almost) 30-something free-lance writer, blogger, genealogist, and friend. Yep. If you pay me, I’ll be your friend. Initial fees are subject to negotiation. You can also contact me about product reviews and ad space. Everything is for sale around here. I make my home in Boston with my roommate, Jane Doe; my 12 year old dog, Chewy; and Jane’s feral cat, Felix. I’m addicted to reading Mormon mommy blogs, Huffington Post, Jezebel, and Facebook status updates.


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