Lord “The Help” Me

Man . . . White people LOVE The Help.  I mean, I am sure some folks of Color also like the movie, but White folks are perhaps more kookoo for cocoa puffs over this movie as they were for The Blind Side.

And since the film has recently been released on DVD and is likely to be on a few Christmas lists, I thought I would offer my thoughts.

For a while I was overtly critical of The Help, but I hadn’t even seen the film, and I don’t think that’s too fair, so (like with the recent Breaking Dawn extravaganza), I saw The Help so that I could offer some critical analysis.

Now, my objections started before I even saw the film based on the author and her process. As a white woman, she did not overtly consult any women of color in the writing process, something I find extremely problematic considering she is trying (from a white perspective) to write from the perspective of black women in the 1960s. Further, she allegedly based one of her main characters (and presumably many of the others) on observation of her brother’s black maid and is now being sued for doing so.

If that is even remotely true, there is a tremendous irony considering that the main character, “Skeeter,” shares her profits from the book with the women who helped her create the book, yet Stockett has thus far refused to do so.  Stockett even justifies herself! “‘Southern women wear guilt like a piece of clothing we can’t do without. I don’t think I’ve apologized…for being White, but I very much have an apology on the tip of my tongue…whenever I think about what I’ve done. That I have written in in the voice of, really, our housekeeper Demetrie and that Ive tried to step into her shoes and imagine what she must’ve been feeling all those years. On one hand, i want to apologize for doing that and being so presumptive, but gosh, it’s so important that we do this in whatever manner.”

However, in the face of all this, I wanted to give the film a fair shake, so I went to see it.

For 146 minutes, I felt like I was taking crazy pills.

The film was wildly racist, and it took all I had not to get up and walk out of the theater.

I didn’t originally want to see the movie because I suspected it was a typical hollywood portrayal of a White savior coming in to save the Poor People of color who can’t help themselves (ala Dangerous Minds or The Blind Side).

While there were all sorts of things that irked me, I will restrict my criticism to a few points.

1. Why do we have to have a white protagonist who “lends voice” to people of color in order for a film to see mainstream commercial success? It’s sickening. It presumes that People of Color (in this case African Americans in the 1960s) had no voice of their own. It presumes that they needed White saviors to come along to make social change a reality. The cherry on top of my whole frustrated 2 hours came in the last few minutes when the main (White) character Skeeter says that she was offered a job in New York but can’t take it because she can’t leave behind the women of color who helped her with the book to deal considering the trouble that she started.  One of the lead Women of Color, Aibilene, responds, “But now we have trouble we can be proud of.”  Granted, this is in 1962 in the throes of the Civil Rights movement in the South. This is post Montgomery Bus Boycott and in the midst of the Albany Movement of the SCLC.  No, the movements of the women and men of color in the south were not “trouble” that Aibilene could be proud of. It took the help of the white savior for her to finally be proud and have a personal stake in the “trouble.”

2. The Help whitewashes the horrible reality of Jim Crow Mississippi. While it alludes to the violence that upheld the system of oppression through the reference to Medgar Evers’ death and some fear, it also makes things seem pretty hunky dorey. At one point, there is even a “comical” moment that alludes to lynching where another Black female protagonist, Minny, runs from her employer’s husband, throws groceries at him, and picks up a stick to defend herself and we all laugh at the silliness because he had no desire to hurt her.

The fact is that if Minny (spoiler alert) shat in the pie of a White woman in 1963 (and arguably in 2011) and then repeatedly humiliated her after the White woman ate the shit, that black woman would be strung up in a tree (likely under some false accusation that she had laid a hand on a white child to save the white woman further embarrassment). The film packages up the terror of the reality of Jim Crowe into a family film palatable to white audiences while simultaneously trying to deal with hard-hitting content. This film succeeds at the former at the expense of the latter. Had Minny been lynched for her transgression against the status quo, there might have been some room for critical racial analysis and portrayal, but that would sacrificed the palatable nature of the White author and producer’s work.

After all, White people like to feel good about what happened “back then” and about “how much progress we’ve made.”  God forbid we actually have to wade through the terrible reality of how we came to be the dominant power in this country.

However, my criticisms are only couched in the words of others who have said it better than me.

In “Dangerous White Stereotypes,” Patricia Turner points out one powerful flaw in the film:  “There’s a problem, though, with that message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not,” yet “Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud.”

In “Rampaging ‘The Help’ Movie: Stereotypes and More,” Dr. Terence Fitzgerald points out that the film portrays Black women in subjugated roles while relying exclusively on terrible stereotypes of Black men as absent and violent.

Duchess Harris turns the White feminist perspective of the book and film as one of “strength through sisterhood” and turns it on its head in her piece, “Kathryn Stockett is Not My Sister and I am Not Her Help.

Racism doesn’t always look like a brick through a window or a man dragged behind a truck or hung in a tree. It can simply look like White ignorance to the realities of the lives of People of Color.

We as White folks have a long history of profiting from the knowledge and labor of People of Color without offering them proper or any compensation. It used to be called slavery. Today we call it The Help.

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4 thoughts on “Lord “The Help” Me

  1. I think you make a lot of great points here about the movie. I haven’t actually seen the movie, but read the book, and wasn’t overly affronted by the stereotypes (I suspect they might project more strongly in visual form). You might consider reading the book and see if any of your opinions change or are altered.

    Again, very valid and interesting points!

  2. I agree with Kaitlin. I also didn’t see the movie, but rather I read the book. The book did a good job of expressing the constant fear with which these women lived. Not only does Stockett address the Medgar Evers incident, but there is a son of someone in the community who is grievously injured simply for being around a protest. The book conveys the tenuous position these women were in daily. I don’t know if the movie addresses this part, but in the book, Hilly is on a crusade to have all the Junior Leaguers install outdoor toilets for the help. Her reason is that they carry all sorts of diseases.

    It’s important to point out that most of these women were not proficient in reading and writing. Plus, they weren’t encouraged to educate themselves (Skeeter checks out books from the library for Abilene, since Jim Crow laws forbid Abilene from doing so at the white library). Therefore, unfortunately, these women did not have the ability to write their stories. They also didn’t have the protection necessary. Finally, they didn’t have the connections to a person in power who would publish their stories.

    Of course, I think it’s arrogant to portray the White heroine as the savior to the poor Black ladies. However, when I read the book, I didn’t feel that was the message. It felt like a story of people in a situation that was considered status quo and unchangeable. Those people decided to work together, despite the danger, to try to change the way things were.

    Again, I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment on the racial undertones. I’m sure there is a White savior slant. That sells movie tickets, because white folks want feel good about themselves. Having just read the book, I came away feeling like Abilene was the hero of the story. She took major risks in recruiting other maids and providing her home as a meeting place. Skeeter had only her reputation to lose. For Abilene, the project could have meant death.

    • Um.. Jen? No.

      Start with this statement from the Association of Black Women Historians, which has a devastating critique of the film and a list of fiction and nonfiction books about black women’s experiences as “the help” http://www.abwh.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2:open-statement-the-help%E2%80%A6

      Black women have had plenty to say about their own experiences as “the help” and every other aspect of their lives. If people really want to know? They dont have to be dependent on fictitious imaginings by white people.

      • I realize I’m probably wasting my time, because anyone who begins a discussion with “Um, no.” is not likely to listen in my experience.

        The truth probably is that white people aren’t seeking out this kind of history. It’s too shameful. Fiction like “The Help” act as a gateway drug of sorts. Millions of white women read this story and discussed it and likely sought more information afterwards. Really, I took away the themes of unlikely friendships from this book.

        I could say a lot more. I could tell you about my experiences growing up in the American South and my parents’ experiences with their African American help. However, again, I think it would fall on deaf ears that have made up their mind that their ideas are the only right ones.

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