I read the first fifty pages of the “The Help” before I put it down, angrily shrugging it off–great, yet another phenomenally successful book about a white person in the South who is magically not racist and another phenomenally successful book about black people told through the perspective of the white person in their lives.
Now a film. I’ve been reading about it, though I haven’t seen it yet. Some of the wide range of opinions I’ve found expressed by black journalists and historians after the jump.
Demetria L. Lucas, a blogger at Essence magazine, refused to see the film because it was yet another movie about black maids–surely it would be “mammy-fied.” Her co-worker insisted that she see it, and she was surprised to find it more nuanced than she’d expected:
I showed up full of righteous indignation. I expected to essentially be yet another Mammy movie, i.e., dysfunctional White people as seen in “Ghost,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” etc., redeem themselves and go on to live happily ever after while the Black people suffer on.
… At its roots, “The Help” is a story about sisterhood between women, showcasing the way we forge bonds and the way we break the ones that should exist.
Her whole post is worth reading.
In the New York Times, Nelson George acknowledges that there is a history of Hollywood discussing the Civil Rights Movement from the point of view of a white person transformed by the black people they interact with. Is it possible for a movie showing the full range of white racism to be made and viewed by whites? He suggests that The Help protects the audience from the depth of violence that characterized that era, on display in the many museums dedicated to the Civil Rights Era in the South which he toured last year. He also asks whether “The Help” harms or is useful to the history of the era and concludes that anything that provokes discussion about the past and the present (working conditions of domestic labor) is useful.
The Association of Black Women Historians offers an open statement about context “to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help.” The ABWH argues that “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.” The Help resuscitates the “Mammy” stereotype: “Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.”
The ABWH contends that the black speech is mischaracterized as a non-region specific black dialect; “In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular.” The book and film also characterize black men as primarily “drunkards, abusive, or absent.”
The book and film also ignore much of the reality of the Civil Rights activism in Mississippi; “Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.”
The ABWH concludes:
“We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of
Anyone seen or read “The Help” and have opinions?