Jerry Mitchell, a columnist with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, writes that The Help has been a financial boon for the Delta town of Greenwood (where most of the movie was filmed) and for the entire state of Mississippi. But a comment from Fred Zollo, the producer of Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi, grabbed my attention. “[The Help] is hardly a civil rights film,” Zollo said. “If you do anything that smells of race and civil rights, very few people will want to see it.”
Zollo is right. American audiences can deal with Jim Crow racism and the civil rights movement as subplots, but we aren’t ready to face these realities head on.
This isn’t just about popular entertainment. The mere mention of racial injustice hooks an immediate “Oh please!” (with exaggerated eye-rolling) from most white Americans.
Thus it has ever been. In his excellent Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, Kevin M. Schultz show how three faith communities transformed America from a Protestant hegemon into a Judeo-Christian nation. In the 1930s, in response to the renewed KKK bigotry of the post WW1 era and the rise of Hitler’s Nazis in Germany, thousands of “trialogues” featuring a Protestant pastor, a Roman Catholic priest and a Jewish Rabbi were held all across America. During the Second World War, the three faiths teamed up with the USO to tell millions of soldiers that the Judeo-Christian tradition made American democracy possible.
One soldier was so moved by this demonstration of unity that he approached the speakers after the meeting.
The soldier was of Greek origin ad was born Greek Orthodox but had not attended church “for a long time” and had grown cynical, thinking “there was too much that was farce” in religion. He had been persecuted for his faith too and he had, in turn, “persecuted the colored race and looked down upon other groups.” But at one of the Camp Meetigs, “a miracle happened to me there . . . As Rabbi Goldstein was speaking I was standing beside a colored soldier. All at once a new feeling came over me. I looked up to the heavens and thought that in spite of the inequalities of life and all the troubles of the world there was something great and good worth fighting for and dying for, if need be. Chaplain, the young man said, “my religion is going to mean something to me from now on.”
If Protestants, Catholics and Jews could dramatize their unity, bridging the color line was the natural next step. But the National Conference of Christians and Jews made a conscious decision to avoid the race issue. Hollywood followed suit. Although eager to address the issue of “intolerance” in a generic way, race was off the table.
Frank Sinatra and the executives at RKO studios made a similar decision in 1944. Throughout the war, Sinatra had added an epilogue to nearly every one of his weekly performances on CBS’s Old Gold show. He gave a brief lecture on a “very, very important subject known as tolerance.” Sinatra would describe a situation where some form of “intolerance” was on display in America, usually through a fictional scenario involving a child being persecuted because of his or her race or religion. Sinatra concluded his lectures explaining why this kind of intolerance was wrong.
Wishing to capitalize on the success of Sinatra’s “tolerance” segments, RKO pictures decided to film a fictional radio program.
There was, however, one adaptation made by RKO executives when it brought Sinatra’s tolerance story to the silver screen: race was excised . . . The film featured no black kids and, most remarkably, it even discussed the generosity of the tormented Jewish boy’s father, who gave blood to the Red Cross without regard to whether a Catholic or Protestant or Jew received it. This was an odd statement considering there was never any consideration of dividing blood by religion, while the Red Cross famously segregated blood from black donors.
In The Help, white socialites endorse the construction of separate toilets for black maids. Nothing in the film gets closer to the spirit of Jim Crow racism. When we realize that African American males comprise less than 7% of the America population but over 40% of the prison population and 60% of those exonerated by DNA evidence, our lack of progress is evident. The problem persists because, in majority white settings, it is difficult to even raise the racial justice issue let alone deal with it.