Before delving into the complexities of The Help, I find it important to acknowledge it as a worthy piece of entertainment. Despite sitting stone-faced throughout much of the movie, I was able to recognize its charm. The acting is superb; the story is moving; and it is successful at showing us how far we have progressed as a nation in terms of race relations, but I digress…
To be released in theaters on August 10, I attended an early screening of The Help back in June. It took me a while to absorb and digest the movie and decide what items were most important to address. I walked away from this piece many times conflicted, hurt, frustrated, angry, and defeated. The Black maid/slave/servant-white “employer” narrative is so convoluted, rich in history and meaning, that it is impossible for one post to encompass it all. There is the narrative itself, both as book and film; there is the personal narrative of the author, Kathryn Stockett, whose wealthy Jackson, Mississippi family employed their own Black maid growing up; there is the south’s nostalgia for the antebellum past; there’s also Hollywood’s general obsession with whitewashing history. Of course, all of that can be summed up by simply acknowledging that the commercialized mainstream media culture is only able to address the United States’ racist past, racial tension, and racial inequality if it absolves white guilt/complicity, valorizes whiteness through history, mythologizes that history, or ignores historical accuracy all together. And it seems the only way the mass American audience is interested in seeing films that explicitly involve relationships between Blacks and whites is if it does those aforementioned things.
For those unfamiliar, The Help was adapted from Stockett’s 2009 bestseller of the same name. The story, told from the point of view of “Skeeter” Phelan, Aibileen Clark, and Minny Jackson, takes place in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Having recently graduated from Ole Miss, Skeeter, a young white woman, wants to be a writer. She finds her break when she’s inspired to anonymously transcribe the experiences of the town’s Black maids, all who work for white families. Originally, Clark is the only maid reluctantly willing to share her stories, later joined by Minny, until eventually a dozen or more maids come forth with tales of abuse, prejudice, and in some cases, love, at the hands of their white employers.
While the delusional marketing powers that be pose this story as a tale of sisterhood (instead of servitude), where “three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step,” more realistic people have recognized it as another example of the “white messiah” appointing him/herself as the savior of the poor, oppressed, uneducated Black people. As Hollywood and other large cultural outputs have made it known they love a good “white salvation through Black (brown, red, yellow) liberation” narrative, it is not surprising that The Help franchise continues to be successful (still high on the New York Times Best Sellers list); nor is it surprising that it was made into a major motion picture; and even less surprising is the fact that Touchstone Pictures, a Disney entity, is responsible for distribution. Disney, as we all know is the reigning champ of purveying a white, heterosexist ideology where Blacks and other props of “diversity,” including women, are only as useful as their ability to maintain the status quo.
As evident in the successes of Gone With the Wind, Imitation of Life, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, Tyler Perry’s the Family That Preys, The Princess and the Frog, Steel Magnolias, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Blind Side, and many more, Hollywood eats up movies based in the south and/or movies that involve the close “relationship” between Black women and white women. If a movie can combine the two, like The Help, it is guaranteed box office gold. These movies are how Hollywood and the dominant culture deal with the United States’ violently racist past. The benevolent relationship between Blacks and whites in these movies generally take on the tone of a kindly, God-fearing, Jesus Christ-loving Black person, placidly letting whites work out their awkwardness regarding race. Eventually both groups realize how similar they are after all, and come to the conclusion that racism is an action of the individual person also hurt by life’s misfortunes, a conclusion mutually exclusive of racism as an institutionalized system that stands to demonize and oppress people based on the color of their skin and the location of their ancestry.
Very much aligned with the book, The Help attempts to dismantle some of these idealized tropes that run rampant in popular culture by showing what was actually lost and who gained from sustaining the image of Scarlett O’Hara and her Tara. What detracts from that noble goal are covert ways the movie eclipses historical white racism through the absence of white men, the blind innocence of white women, and the religious obligation of Black people to heal white people’s wounds and forgive.
Admittedly, as the movie focuses on sisterhood and friendship between Black and white women, the presence of men would seem rather unnecessary. However, the passivity and near absence of white men in this movie diminishes the influence, impact, and existence of white male power and domination during that time, especially as we know that power in our collective psyches. While the assassination of Medgar Evers occurs during the story, there is a distinct separation between the white nationalist group who committed the murder and the innocuous husbands of the women in the Junior League. Naturally not every white man living in Mississippi between 1954 and 1968 was in the Ku Klux Klan or a white supremacist, but these indifferent, acquiescent men paint a grossly different picture than what was shown in the nightly news footage we’ve all seen where countless, nameless white men (women and children) venomously screamed and terrorized the lives of anyone working toward social progress, integration, and human rights. Hilly Holbrook, the hateful antagonist in The Help mentions Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, as someone worth listening to because he’s “the Governor.” Ross Barnett was one of the most hateful politicians of that time who strongly supported segregation and ordered the Freedom Riders arrested and sent to the Parchman State Prison Farm to work on a chain gang, alongside hardened criminals. It’s unclear whether the screenwriters referenced Barnett to be tongue-in-cheek or to revise one of the most tumultuous times in Mississippi history for mass audiences, but whatever their motivation, it treads on dangerous territory.
The (white) Women
There are five white female characters that propel The Help. One is the savior, Skeeter Phelan; another is Hilly Holbrook, the racist “Queen Bee”; Elizabeth Leefolt, Holbrook’s lapdog; Celia Foote, a hapless Marilyn Monroe-type, teetering around in stilettos; and Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte, the quintessential Southern mother. Again, a common characterization in Southern themed movies, The Help uses Hilly Holbrook’s character, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, as the vehicle through which all racism and intolerance are enacted. The other women, minus Skeeter and Celia, are so overcome by desires for class elevation and acceptance from Hilly that they cannot express their discomfort with her need to terrorize “the help.” As Hilly pushes for white families to build separate bathrooms for their Black maids (because “they carry different diseases” than white people despite those Black people cooking their food, cleaning their houses, and taking care of their babies), her fellow bridge club members and Junior League hopefuls awkwardly avert their eyes or nervously titter alongside her instead of speaking out. Like their husbands, these women are not to be judged as prejudiced, racist, or bigoted against the Black citizens of Jackson because the inequality they profit from and perpetuate is not labeled as such. Instead, they are going along with simply how things are, which we are led to believe is no fault of their own. That is where Skeeter, the young educated liberal looking to change things, or at least question why those things exist, comes in.
It is important to note that as a Black woman, Aibileen could not tell the stories of other Black women and the book be received as well as The Help has. If a Black author wrote the book, or if the story allowed for Aibileen to be in charge of her own freedom, The Help would be relabeled as “African- American fiction” or a “Black movie,” marginalized by its topic and not half as successful. Having Kathryn Stockett express her interpretation of Black southern dialect to channel these women sells more; it’s more fascinating to that dominant culture to see a privileged (through wealth or class status) white person engage in “Black things,” like seeing Gwenyth Paltrow rap. Allowing for Miss Skeeter Phelan to opt out of whiteness in favor of the truth is more shocking to our culture systems because we know there is no better place than wealth, prestige, and whiteness, and for someone to give all of that up for a few Black maids, must truly be the messiah. Unfortunately though, this construction is self-serving for those who buy that story, including Stockett, because while Skeeter gets to leave Jackson, move to New York, and presumably begin a fabulous life, Minny, Aibileen, and all the other maids are stuck to face the wrath of her doing. However, the audience is left with closure courtesy of a Mary J. Blige song and Aibileen walking down the street towards her bright future.
Originally conflicted over risking her life and her job to assist Skeeter, Aibileen is persuaded by a moving speech from her pastor about loving thy enemy as the way to healing. To a packed congregation, the young preacher asserts, “If you can love the enemy, you have your victory.” Not completely a stereotype, it is common knowledge that the mass of Black Americans are faith-based people. Playing on Blacks’ religiosity in this way is very intentional, and again, treads on dangerous territory. Not only does this scene suggest that it is the moral responsibility of Black people to move past race and racism, it also frees white people, in and outside of the movie, from self-accountability and equally investing in the fight against systemic and individualized racism and prejudice. That is the most significant way multiculturalism works in popular culture and media: apoliticize racialized people, encourage them to forget or ignore the institutionalized system that fosters their marginalization, and have them assimilate to what mass society deems appropriate. It becomes dangerous for Black people to buy into these narratives of moral obligation as Christians because it creates a false sense of importance that only the dominant culture profits from. Offering forgiveness is not generally bad advice on its own, but what’s done in The Help, however, suggests that Black people are morally obligated to love, accept, and in essence, cherish, white people, especially the ones relishing in all their oppressive, supremacist, prejudiced glory. When the movie shows Aibileen having a moment with her “last white baby,” May Mobley, telling her, “You is kind; you is smart; you is important,” the audience is so overcome by the clear love “Aibee” has for this baby (and vice versa), that it eclipses her other lived experiences as a Black maid living in Jackson, Mississippi. The message then becomes, “Black women are all of our mothers. They love(d) that responsibility and took/take pride in caring for whites.” These images are what propel this notion of an inherent sisterhood or bond existing between Black women and white women that The Help tries to promote. Obviously Black women and white women can, have, and continue to build lasting, sincere friendships and allyships, but not under the pretenses that the movie offers. That “natural” or “inherent” bond often propagandized in Hollywood only exists in movies because in real life the supported superiority of one cannot be at the expense of another’s assumed inferiority. Kathryn Stockett’s current lawsuit is evidence of that mentality, even if on a subconscious level.
Leaving the theater, I heard a few Black women say, “This is the story people need to know because they (presumably, white people) don’t know that history.” While I am not the resident authority on the lives of Civil Rights era Southern Black women, I can confidently say, this is not the story people need to know because while thoroughly entertaining, it gives the audience the message: “See?! Things weren’t really that bad. There were just a few bad seeds who made it rough for Blacks, but it’s really because they were hurting inside, not because they were racist. White people really did care about Black people; and black folks loved taking care of those white babies.” And maybe some of them did, but walking around thinking that The Help somehow adds to a national conversation about race and that history in this country is trite and grossly optimistic.
Most likely because I grew up in the Atlanta area and know the south intimately, I possess a certain degree of hostility toward these type of narratives. Spending much of my formative years in the land of Dixie, I lived in an environment where there was, and continues to be, an undeniable nostalgia for the antebellum south maintained by a number of white people; a kind of nostalgia that can be seen on almost any campus at a large southern university. For those caught in the rapture of that nostalgia, where slavery has been made to look like a little dark spot (no pun intended) on the otherwise glorious south, I believe exists a particular level of complacency where the common sentiment is, “that’s simply how things were back then. That has nothing to do with things now.” I believe it is safe to label these folks as apologists. Aside from the obvious racism, prejudice, and bigotry of some, that nostalgia and reframing of history is a product of the romanticized idealism of “the South” supported by Hollywood.
Everyone’s favorite character out of that Hollywood construction is the illustrious southern belle. Her panache has been so completely mythologized that it’s provided the South with a PR campaign so effective that we can watch these movies or read these books, and thoughts of slavery, Black women being pulled away from lunch counters and protest sites by their hair, Black men being marched to their deaths, young, hopeful college students murdered on dark Mississippi roads, oppression, gross inequality that still affects us today, and violence as a way of life easily never enter our minds. We’re too lost in the costumes, accents, fried chicken and Crisco, sweet tea, magnolia trees, and a big-bosomed mammy to reflect on the lives of those actually affected.
Despite many Black folks supporting these narratives, it is important to question this type of work while we enjoy it because mainstream culture keeps looking for these kinds of stories to tell. The more of these stories we hear, the more historical accuracy becomes a nonissue. The Help is neither groundbreaking nor revolutionary in what it offers audiences. This is the only way popular culture wants us to talk about history. Because these one-sided narratives won’t die tells me that for Hollywood and the masses of people who find pleasure in these stories know that the tumultuous Black American experience is real and not a matter of us “playing the race card.” To eclipse that history with something like The Help is an admittance of guilt and the need to cover up. The more we see these stories where only one bad white person brought harm to others, we can not only distance ourselves from the past and from the truth, but also become complacent with the seeming progress of today. Instead of slavery, the KKK, Ross Barnett, segregationists, the underlying message of the tea partiers (including the misinformed Black ones), tales of campus racism, gross wealth and education disparities among Blacks and whites, gentrification, etc, being symptomatic of a larger societal ill that continues to permeate our culture, many people look at racism as something of the past; especially when we currently live in a world where the most beloved woman (Oprah) is Black and the most hated man (LeBron) also happens to be Black. Those are markers mistakenly used to show that equality has been reached.
While I understand the desire to indulge these types of movies, we as consumers must be mindful of who is selling us these products and what their motives and intentions are. Like the straight male blogger who decided to create “Gay Girl in Damascus,” Kathryn Stockett, Disney, and others who’ve helped The Help get to where it is, enjoy taking on the struggle of Black/brown people without actually handing in their whiteness; without distancing themselves from the problem that is at the root of our oppression. These people often say, “I just wanted to shed light on the situation,” yet they do not even share the financial or societal wealth resulted from their “altruistic” deeds. Instead, they valorize themselves where they become the heroes and not the people who have worked for progress and continue to live that experience every day of their lives. I’m not completely confident that well-meaning white people will stop making these kind of movies or writing these kind of books (and blogs), but I hope at some point they do what a Salon.com reader suggested upon reading about Stockett’s lawsuit: “From now on all authors should simply contribute a portion of all profits to some black [sic] charity. We’ll call it the Sally Hemmings [sic] Tax.”
(And because the internet works so serendipitously sometimes, I was led to this looking for an image of The Help’s movie poster. This post is dedicated to her; for she represents exactly why I’ve committed myself to being a cultural critic.)