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“The Wire” and “The Help”

June 15, 2012

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-

telligible gibberish.


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

domestic workers.”


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.”

  1. June 16, 2012 2:48 pm

    Hello, Allen,
    I finally watched the Help on TV, and my thought at the end was similar to how I often feel upon viewing movies that everybody loves: glad I didn’t pay a bunch of money to watch it at a theatre. Aside from the stereotypes and many flaws you have mentioned, I considered the part about the excrement pie just plain offensive. And that was the part most often talked about by people who had told me about the movie before I saw it. Kind of like the lady who takes a dump in the sink in that terrible movie the Bridesmaids. Not a fan.

    Recently watched a bunch of episodes of Nurse Jackie who went into rehab this year after several seasons of being a drug addict while functioning as a weird but effective nurse. Okay, maybe that’s not so believable but it was entertaining, at least.

    • June 17, 2012 12:02 pm

      Hi, Julie, thanks for checking in. I was apprehensive about The Help because it was compared to The Blind Side, which was even more successful. Both were self-congratulatory in that they showed white people being heroic for saving black people from circumstances created by white people. I hope audiences didn’t think that these flicks counted as genuinely addressing the deep racial divide the U.S. still faces.

      • June 17, 2012 7:16 pm

        Some probably did think that, but it’s good to see you talking about it in more detail. I’m afraid there is a real divide between the truth and what people want to see or believe. Deep societal issues cannot be expressed in pat situations that make people feel good. A quality movie would get us thinking and would pry open our unwilling eyes with a crowbar. As whites, if we felt those indignities could happen to us or our children, ah, that would wake us up.

        Have you ever heard of Tim Wise? I saw him talk a few months ago and it was very interesting. Calls himself an anti-racist speaker, and his presentation covered many aspects that open up the discussion.

      • June 20, 2012 8:57 am

        I had not heard of Wise, but we can use all the rational evaluation of race relations we can get. I was just talking to a friend in Chicago about the institutionalized racism in U.S. law, most prominently in the quixotic and tragic War on Drugs. Though African-Americans use street drugs at similar rates to white Americans, their incarceration rates for drug offenses are much higher.

  2. June 16, 2012 3:11 pm

    On the advice of my son, I bought the entire set of The Wire DVDs. What an awesome show! I’ve watched it twice, and am sure I will watch it again. I saw things the second time I didn’t remember from the first time, and it was even better the second time!

    • June 17, 2012 12:07 pm

      The texture of the series is unbelievable. Did you watch a lot of episodes in one sitting, beanie? I couldn’t. They’re too intense for my fragile sensibilities.

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