On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, 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.
During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women’s employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. 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.
Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. For centuries, black women and men have drawn strength from their community institutions. The black family, in particular provided support and the validation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood.
Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white employers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domestic workers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault. The film, on the other hand, makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.
Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP, gets some attention. However, Evers’ assassination sends Jackson’s black community frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos and disorganized confusion—a far cry from the courage demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight. 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.
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.
Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at Howard University. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross are Lifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University of Texas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and is a Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.
Hm. I should start by mentioning that I haven’t read the book, so keep in mind that what I’m commenting on is solely based on my one viewing of the film. I saw The Help this weekend at a UK advance preview and came away from it thinking “how could anyone not like that?”. I had heard that there were “mixed reviews” of the film before watching, so tried to look at it critically, but couldn’t find fault with the film. I first thought that objections might come about from a feminist point of view, but was happy to find that the two main characters are single women, who are not obsessed with “finding a man” or any such thing, but are driven mostly by their careers. I imagined the negative reaction to the movie would have been from a racial point of view. Would it just be a rehash of the “white saviour” trope with a 1960s backdrop?
The answer to that question is no. Skeeter (Emma Stone’s character) does not “save” the help (the black domestic workers), she instead provides them with a voice. There is no change in fortunes for the black women in the community. The above open statement takes issue with the distortion of the realities of black workers in the film. But the film is called “The Help”, and it focuses almost solely on the black domestic workers who raised white children. It outlines this fact pretty early on in the film, and doesn’t attempt to do much else. To this end, it is successful. But further objections in the statement seem to me to be unfounded.
The “Mammys” in the movie are not all firmly loyal and contented. Skeeter’s interviews with the women highlight this. Regarding the sexual harassment that domestic workers faced not being featured/mentioned in the film, I would suggest that the screenwriters/novelist did not want to tell that story. This film is not The Color Purple. It is light hearted, yes, but in equal parts dramatic. Wikipedia tells me that the novelist was raised by a black nanny herself, and so I wouldn’t have thought a young girl would have seen the darker side of female domestic work at that age.
As for the speech and accent in the film, while I am not completely familiar with American regional and cultural dialects, I am a History student with a passion for film and an awareness of Hollywood’s frequent historical anachronisms. In other cases, they may be forgiveable. But when the anachronisms perpetuate racial stereotyping, there is a problem. I can only imagine this is an honest mistake on the part of the filmmakers, and not a deliberate attempt to be offensive.
Regarding civil rights; the most emotional part of the film for me was the depiction of Medgar Evers’ assassination. I personally saw it as a reminder that the most dangerous racists in the community were NOT the “attractive, well dressed, society women” but were actually the Ku Klux Klan. The event does not cause scurrying and disorganised confusion for the black characters in the film, it actually leads to “the help” deciding collectively to contribute their stories to Skeeter.
I also disagree that the film displays male blacks as drunkards, abusive, and absent. Yes, there is Minny’s abusive husband’s voice and shadow, although we never actually see his face. But there is also the pastor, Preacher Green, who is a respectful and dignified man of upstanding character. As well as Henry, who is depicted as being thoughtful and helpful to both Skeeter and Aibileen. The statement that black men are represented so badly is also unfair because the majority of black males onscreen in the film are in fact attentive, hard working garden workers. Perhaps this is not the true picture of 1960s American black male employment/temperance, but it is certainly not displaying “most of the male characters” as useless, violent vagrants.
For me, the main character in the film is Aibileen, played by Viola Davis. While her story is told to us through Skeeter, at no point in the film did I find the journey of Skeeter to be more important than that of Aibileen’s. There is never as much at stake for Skeeter as there is for Aibileen, or Minny. My brother had read the book before seeing the film with me, and explained that the illness of Skeeter’s mother was hugely downplayed in the film compared with in the book. The main issue in the film for me is the working conditions of the female black domestic workers. Skeeter’s resolution is secondary to that of Aibileen’s, and to reflect this, the final shot of the film is of the latter.
When it comes down to it, The Help is a film consisting of a brilliant cast of black female characters, each of whom are three dimensional and convincing (at least to me anyway). For this, it should be celebrated. How many “blockbuster” films can you say that about? It may be disappointing for some that the story is told through a young white woman, but from a cynical point of view, the unspoken Hollywood opinion that “white audiences need white actors to identify with” might be ringing true here. But that’s an issue for another discussion. Historically (and even racially if you agree with the above statement and disagree with my own opinions) the film may be suspect, but the bottom line is that it is just that; a film. 99 times out of 100 a film is going to “strip people’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment”. Because ultimately, without the entertainment, the cinema seats will be empty.
Feel free to agree/disagree with anything I’ve said here, I may be wrong about some of this. I’m not trying (entirely) to shit on the opinions of five university professors and experts on this subject, just to give my view of things.
“This shit is like Shia LeBeouf in song form yo. Lissenin to this shit is like havin ya ears penetrated by a million microscopic dicks namsayin. Shit sounds like niggas doin aerobics on a magical cloud of daisies. How many meadows did Kanye cartwheel across before he decided to make this beat? Seriously yo…. Jus how many lily pads did the nigga skip across the pond on before he got inspired to make some shit like this?”—Ghostface Killah’s thoughts on “Lift Off” from Watch the Throne.