Not having seen The Help I can’t judge the merits of the movie any more than I could the last Black Women Catching Hell flick, For Colored Girls. However, everything I have read about it gives me reason to think this is going to be a glorified Lifetime movie with a simple and sanitized look at race relations in the segregated South. My wife wants to see the movie and judge for herself, so I will probably go with her, but all I’m expecting is not much more than another Ghosts of Mississippi or Mississippi Burning historically inadequate whitewash of where White folks gradually come to realize, “Gosh, segregation really sucked,”
I’m not the only one wary of another Southern-fried fairy tale. The Association of Black Women Historians have their own issues with The Help.
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.
It’s not that I think it’s impossible for a good movie to be made about Black maids in 2011 as it’s been proven time and again, Hollywood takes stories about race and racism, pours sugar and honey all over it, slathers whipped cream all over it and demands audiences eat the mess up with a spoon.
Southern racism is being romanticized by right-wing conservatives as not being as bad as advertised. Reserving final judgment until I’ve seen the film, but my suspicion is The Help is little else than left-wing liberals wanting to do right by the Black women who toiled as domestic servants, but preferring shallow depictions of an ugly time in America as not to disturb audiences with uncomfortable realities and unhappy endings.
One day Hollywood will get the guts to sing a different song of the South and the next time an immensely talented actress such as Viola Davis gets the script telling a tale of a Black woman’s struggle for dignity during segregation it will be a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer. There’s a project for Tyler Perry to mull over if he ever hopes to make his Academy Award winning dreams come true.
- Melissa Harris Perry Breaks Down The Help: ‘Ahistorical And Deeply Troubling’ (mediaite.com)
- Movie Review: The Help (blogcritics.org)
- Driving Miss Daisy meets Waiting to Exhale: circa 1960 (eboneeyes.wordpress.com)
- The ghosts of Mississippi still haunt Hollywood (independent.co.uk)