U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Anyone seen/read "The Help?"

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 entertainment.”

Anyone seen or read “The Help” and have opinions?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I haven’t seen this movie, thought I may end up (semi-involuntarily) screening it tomorrow. That said, I’m interested in this discussion. It’s hard to discuss (via a movie or otherwise) the history of race and racism without also unearthing resentments and animosities. – TL

  2. We all, I hope, realize that this is not history but rather art. As art it is neither right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate. It can as a cultural artifact tells us something about where American society is today, not where it was yesterday. We may not like what we see, but nevertheless it does represent something of our mindset. It seems rather wrongheaded to require that art meet a historians criteria. Except one could say that the public is so ignorant of history it does not know the difference. Is that our concern?

  3. Anon–it is representing itself as an accurate view of the Civil Rights Era.

    My concern is that this piece of art is replicating stereotypes so ingrained in our country’s psyche that most people won’t recognize them as such. I also think we as historians have the scope of knowledge to be able to point out the stereotypes going on. Why is the Mammy stereotype (usually perpetuated in arts and crafts as much or more than in history)so pervasive? Because it makes whites feel like they aren’t racist. This is a contemporary problem if racism continues to exist, but we are blind to it because of stereotypes like this.

    Would it be a problem if all Nazis were portrayed as anti-racists? Or if all of the popular recountings of the Hollocaust were from the German perspective, rather than the Jewish? We acknowledge the depth of violence in the Nazi era, but are still tentative about doing so with the depth of violence in the Jim Crow Era (I, too, fail in this account at times).

    It is also an important question to ask why is it that this particular book is so popular? What is it satisfying that books written by African Americans about the same subject do not?

  4. Lauren K.A. yes I agree. Does this mirror the whitewashing of the past that is continually going on? Filmmakers and American audiences continues to love romance; where in the end and against all odds we all love each other.

  5. I saw The Help last night with some friends who had enjoyed the book. Some reflections:

    Good things:
    1. A film about women not revolving around romance.
    2. Progress beyond several stereotypes (for instance, some of the black women’s children were going to college, there was discussion of slavery and the fear of violence that could accompany domestic servants positions and the violence that faced activists).

    Things I found problematic:
    1. The part of the Mammy stereotype that involved black women loving white children was in full force. One woman’s heart was broken unto death because she had to go live with her daughter in Chicago instead of continuing to work long past retirement age for a white family. The main black character loved deeply all of the white children she cared for. I don’t know enough about this, but even if it was the case for some people, I think it was overblown in the film.
    2. The film tried to be from the perspective of the primary black character–she did the voice overs and the movie began and ended with her, but the heart of the film was still the central white character’s coming of age.
    3. There was more racism-as-a-system than one reviewer saw. When one maid was arrested, she was thrown against the car by police and as the camera moved away, a violent crack sounded off screen. But the greatest force of racism was one mean woman, which could lead one to conclude that racism is largely about individual meanness instead of about systemic problems.
    4. One thing I didn’t read about anywhere is the title–The Help. Singular and distancing, like “The Negro.” From the perspective of whites, even though the book-within-a-book was from the perspective of blacks.

  6. Are we allowed to use the phrase “Magical Ofay” on this comment thread? Because that’s exactly what this genre you’re talking about is

  7. Another voice:

    “I write about working class Black folks and domestics in my own fiction constantly, so in this case, it’s not the story of Black domestics that I resent–or that the story the movie is based on was written by a White woman. And I don’t resent seeing Black women looking unglamorous in frumpy uniforms onscreen. I’m not embarrassed by them. Why should I be, when I’m related to women just like them?

    “What I resent are the tone-deaf depictions like the ones I saw onscreen yesterday.”

    http://phillisremastered.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/chocolate-breast-milk-a-review-of-the-help/

  8. “This film focuses on giving power to Black women, but none of them can claim that power without White assistance. Martha Southgate already has written eloquently about the fact that Civil Rights was not the purview of White Southerners, but rather Black southerners. You would never know that by looking at this movie.”

  9. “For me, the lack of Black female interior life was what angered me the most—that and the lack of any real affection toward Black children in the movie. No Black children were embraced or kissed in this film, while White children were hugged and kissed all the time, the implication being that yes, Black children were emotionally neglected, but this neglect was for the greater good: so that the children of White women could receive it all.”

  10. Anon 8/12/2011 12:29 PM wrote “We all, I hope, realize that this is not history but rather art.”

    I find myself disagreeing strongly with such a sentiment. “Art” does not exist outside of history; additionally, just as all politics are local, all art is political, regardless of the sentiment of a given artist who thinks otherwise, and regardless of a given artist who doesn’t realize this is the case. To pretend that there exists such a thing as an “art” outside of either politics or history is to be self-deceptively naive.

    In the cases of white supremacy and institutionalized racism, particularly, there is no such thing as an artistic representation that exists outside of history (well, at least as long as there are people alive who remember first-hand the effects of white supremacy and institutionalized racism). Others in this comment thread express this more eloquently than I can, but, in conclusion, I just wanted to weigh-in with the suggestion that Anon 8/12/2011 12:29 PM isn’t thinking this through far enough.

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