“The Wire” and “The Help”
Jude and I have been enjoying weekly installments of the sublime HBO series The Wire for
several months. We’re about halfway through the 60-episode street-level view of Baltimore,
created by former crime reporter David Simon.
I’ve never been to Baltimore, but I feel like I have due to Simon’s unblinking look at street
drug traders, stevedores, politicians, educators, journalists and cops who are all just trying
to make it through the day. Simon’s current project is about a neighbourhood in New Orleans
rebuilding after Katrina. I lived in the Crescent City, and I’ve never seen the uniqueness and
vitality of it better captured on film.
The main character in The Wire is Jimmy McNulty, a complex and conflicted cop. He’s
around for much of the action, taking it in with a mixture of outrage, sadness, empathy and
indifference. Like the rest of the characters — portrayed by the finest group of actors I’d
never heard of — McNulty is flawed. He’s not good or bad.
The series is nonjudgemental. The numerous criminals are not glamourized. Some of them
excel, others see no other options and plug along. They don’t choose wisely, but Simon
shows clearly why they make the choices they do.
The closest TV series to it I’ve ever seen is Hill Street Blues. It, too, had a large cast and rich,
interweaving story lines. But it was obliged to have the occasional gratuitous car chase or
shoot out to keep interest piqued during a commercial break.
You get none of that with The Wire. Numerous characters and several subplots flow together
seamlessly. It never hits a false note. Like real life, some situations are resolved, some aren’t.
Most every episode ends quietly. In the one we just watched, a crooked longshoreman walks
silently toward a group of men who’ve just found out they need to kill him. Fade out.
At the end of each episode, I marvel at how much exposition was presented. And I can barely
wait for the next one.
On the other end of the spectrum is the recent movie The Help. I don’t think its superficiality
would have been so magnified if we hadn’t watched it a night after The Wire. Whereas David
Simon offered fully developed characters, The Help traded in one-dimensional stereotypes
while presenting itself as Serious Cinema.
It was set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early ’60′s, the dawn of the Civil Rights struggle.
It purported to show the tense relationship between the white country club set and their
black maids. A young white woman named Skeeter tries to chronicle this in a book told
from the perspective of the maids.
Okay, first off, as a long-time Louisiana resident, I want to gripe about these weird names
that writers feel compelled to give Southerners, like Skeeter, Chigger or June Bug. The
whole time I was there, I never met anyone with an insect-based nickname.
Emma Stone slogged through the role, acting like she was from 50 years in the future.
Although Skeeter’s family wealth assured her status with her peers, they treated her
with increasing disdain as her intentions became clear. The worst of them, Miss Hilly,
(Bryce Dallas Howard) was the absurdly evil anatagonist, just a moustache away from
being Snidely Whiplash.
In fact, all the white women except Skeeter were raging racists or blithering idiots. I was
coming of age in Shreveport, 222 miles away, at this same time. I can tell you that, at least
a few social classes below them, the girls were not that shallow. Not that I didn’t have my
own problems with them. A number of them emphatically told me, “no, thank y’all”.
Men of any color were scarce in The Help. Those who did show up were abusive, ineffectual,
vain or just too sketchy to describe. The male with the most screen time, Skeeter’s editor,
looked like a hobbit who had strayed from the shire, the south end.
The maids were uniformly saintly. Any anger they showed was royally justified. One of
them, Minnie — played by Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar — was central to the most
ridiculous sequence in the movie. Minnie baked a chocolate pie for Miss Hilly to apologize
for being uppity and using an indoor bathroom during a thunderstorm.
Miss Hilly, who was of the mind that black people have unique, Caucasian-threatening
diseases, saw no choice but to fire her. So we the viewers were asked to believe that Minnie
shit into the pie and served it up. If that weren’t enough of a stretch, Miss White Thing ate
a large portion, savouring every bite.
That scene was the most talked-about instance of dessert desecration since Jason Biggs
screwed an apple pastry in 1999′s American Pie. Certainly there’s a movement afoot
among professional bakers to address these abuses.
The movie was so ham-handed that it even wasted the talents of Cicely Tyson as Constantine,
Skeeter’s childhood nanny. Her role, as Spike Lee termed it, was that of “the Magical Negro“.
She existed merely to serve Skeeter, constantly dispensing wisdom that bordered on unin-
The Help made a ton of money and garnered a ton of awards, including five from the Black
Film Critics Circle. The Association of Black Women Historians, however, issued a letter
saying that “despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph
over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores and trivializes the experiences of black
The statement concluded that the group “finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film
to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.”