Is “The Help” just another Southern-fried fairy tale?

Thank heaven for kind White women telling the stories of downtrodden Black women.

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.

Hollywood wants stories about domestics, not activists.

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10 thoughts on “Is “The Help” just another Southern-fried fairy tale?

  1. Great article on The Help. I’ve also weighed in this strange phenomena of pining for the good ole days. Please check out my blog: discoverblackus.wordpress.com

    Keep up the good writing, I really enjoy your blogs!

  2. Well if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie why are you speculating at all of what you “might” think? Seriously, how about writing about something you have first hand experience with. And I feel sorry for your wife, don’t go just to patronize her, go because you want to. or stay home.

    • Tell you what, krissybelle; you allow me to speculate and I’ll tolerate youfright to criticize an opinion about a movie you haven’t seen either, okay?

      You don’t have to feel too sorry for my wife. We’re about a week away from celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary, so I must not be patronizing her too much.

      Thanks anyway.

  3. Pingback: The “Help” — An Open Letter to the Fans « Anna Renee is Still Talking

  4. I’m confused. You write, “Southern racism is being romanticized by right-wing conservatives…” I ask, which right-wing conservatives are you referring to? Hollywood certainly isn’t known for being a hotbed of Conservativism. Last time I checked, neither Oprah Winfrey nor Tyler Perry, who both endorse the movie, fell into this category either…

    • Sorry. I forgot to include a hotlink to an article in U.S. News about Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s unorthodox beliefs about slavery and the promotion of the fallacy that slavery was less evil than advertised. The link is t here now.

      I agree with you that Hollywood is not a “hotbed of Conservatism” and neither are Perry or Winfrey. However, when Hollywood wants to tell stories about race, it’s usually closer to the Driving Miss Daisy style of “live and let live” instead of Do the Right Thing where matters are somewhat less tidy, In the case of The Help (which I have not read or yet seen), it may fall somewhere between those two other movies, but as I said I’ll reserve judgment. However, I strongly suspect this is more a “get out your handkerchiefs and have a good cry” story about the lives of these maids, than a movie that makes bold statements about race relations.

  5. Pingback: Not Helping “The Help” « Interrace Magazine

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