Though it feels like a lifetime, it was only a few months ago that the world was thrust into a pandemic of Victorian proportions, and no amount of “Downton Abbey” seems to abate the rising anxiety. And recent events have spotlighted another illness we are all processing: systemic racism.
As historical drama lovers, we embrace stories of the past with loving arms because they are a balm in times of turmoil. But how do our beloved films distort fact and perpetuate problematic tropes that live on screen and in life?
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Seemingly innocuous historical dramas harbor harmful depictions of Black history. At the forefront of many dramas is a leading white character that is largely credited with improving the lives of his or her Black counterparts. In an article for The Atlantic, Nigerian-American writer, Teju Cole, contextualizes what is called the White Savior Industrial Complex: “[it] is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
In many historical dramas, the white savior’s good deeds occupy most of the plot so that the Black narrative is lost and inevitably devalued. The white character often feels like their favors to Black people exempt them from complicity in the wider oppressive system. The White-Savior Industrial Complex is a dangerous mode-of-thought that has spilled into popular culture.
Historical drama doesn’t need another white savior. In light of that, this article delves into two primary examples of critically acclaimed dramas — “Gone with the Wind” and “The Help,” that exemplify the White Savior trope, and how the use of this trope ultimately robs historical drama lovers of genuine stories. We also share some period dramas from Black creators, and other resources.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
The Hollywood classic Civil War drama Gone with the Wind has long been criticized for its glorification of the American south. The film follows the pettish Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) as she navigates a love triangle with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) at the outset of the Civil War. The Confederacy’s eventual loss undermines Scarlett’s southern heritage and ultimately challenges her position of privilege.
“Gone with the Wind” frames Scarlett and her family as decent human beings, though the fact that they own slaves is a contradictory point. In a widely-read op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “12 Years a Slave” (2013) director John Ridley writes: “It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.” Indeed, the creation of Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy, Scarlett’s loyal and maternal house servant, trivializes a violent racist past by distilling it into a caricature.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture Museum defines the “mammy” archetype, “the trope painted a picture of a domestic worker who had undying loyalty to their slaveholders, as caregivers and counsel. This image ultimately sought to legitimize the institution of slavery.”
Mammy’s relationship with the white and privileged Scarlett is not equal no matter how much affection they may show each other. The film’s narrative is framed in a way that admonishes the O’Hara family and presents them as Mammy’s allies because they speak to her as if she’s a friend. In fact, they operate Tara, their Georgia plantation, by demanding Mammy’s thankless servitude and they exercise their privilege at her expense.
They may be fictional characters, but modern viewers should view the dynamic as an imbalance of power, not a familial bond between a young southern belle and a woman at the top of the slave hierarchy. Harking back to Ridley’s commentary, “Gone with the Wind” embraces the harmful stereotypes that have kept white people distant from the Black community’s expansive suffering.
If adapted today, a progressive audience would hope to see more time invested in Mammy’s narrative, written and performed by Black creators, and a realistic depiction of power dynamics on southern plantations during and following the American Civil War.
The Help (2011)
Upon its release, Tate Taylor’s film The Help was heralded as an emotionally poignant depiction of Black women who served affluent white families in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s. However, the mid-century drama reveals a problematic erasure of Black voices. Despite the title’s suggestion, the film does not focus on the voices of “the help,” rather their experiences are stepping stones in a white character’s overarching narrative.
The film is based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel and is told through the perspective of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an Ole’ Miss graduate and aspiring author. She finally finds her muse in the Black maids that work in Jackson, and so begins to interview them. The audience sees Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) experience abhorrent racism from their employers as Skeeter vigorously takes notes in the comfort of her family’s cotton plantation, Longleaf.
Ideally, Skeeter’s journalistic endeavor would shine a light on the racial divide in domestic labor. This isn’t the case, however, since Aibileen’s and Minny’s experiences are footnotes in Skeeter’s larger story of becoming a published author.
She embodies the White Savior trope as she concocts a noble plan to expose the horrid daily lives of Black women in domestic service. She has a naive belief that her writing might change the views of her racist community and it is doubly problematic that she publishes her completed research anonymously. With enough gumption and the power of the pen, Skeeter thinks she will be the one to fix the world for her Black neighbors.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Viola Davis expresses her regret in taking the role:
“I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny [played by Octavia Spencer, who won a best-supporting-actress Oscar]. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”
Indeed, “The Help” lacks the voice that is most valuable in a story about racism. And to define the film as a heartwarming drama undermines the true gravity of Black women’s stories. The Economist records that 60% of Black women were employed as maids by the year 1940, and that number had increased by 1963 when the period drama takes place. Their voices should be heard, even in works of historical fiction.
Historical dramas are improved when they are rooted in honesty, and it’s important for viewers to know that stories are distorted for the sake of white comfort. Educating oneself is a lifelong endeavor that is enriched by the art in which we choose to indulge.
There is no shame in having loved a film that proves problematic. As historical drama lovers, we must reflect on why, learn from our observations, and seek the art that teaches as well as entertains. While period drama is a lovely form of escapism, we can’t escape the ever present inequity that exists, still, in the 21st century.
As part of learning how to center Black narratives, here is a list of suggested films and online series:
Historical Dramas by Black Creators
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Malcolm X (1992)
Freedom Riders (PBS American Experience)
I am Not Your Negro (PBS Independent Lens)
The Loving Story (2011)
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012)
Miscellaneous History-Based Media by Black Creators
Black Girl in a Big Dress YouTube Series
NotYourMommasHistory YouTube Series
Bonnets at Dawn podcast
The Nod podcast
Kailey Rhone makes use of her English degree working as a production editor in the world of academic publishing. She can be found rewatching “Downton Abbey” and sipping on another cup of Earl Grey when she’s not writing about the intersection of feminism and Jane Austen’s novels. Her work can be found in Persuasions.
If you enjoyed this post, wander over to The Period Films List. Also see Period Dramas for Black History Month.