The film adaptation of "The Help" opens today. Predictably, it’s receiving hype equal to that of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel about a young white woman in early ’60s Mississippi who risks her social position to write an oral history of local black maids.
As a racial justice and gender writer, a pop culture observer, and an African American woman who rides for Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Cicely Tyson and Aunjanue Ellis, I feel obligated to see this film. But, damn it, I’m jaded, and it has absolutely nothing to do with watching Black women portray domestic workers onscreen. There’s no shame in domestic work, unless you’re talking about their employers’ abuse and wage exploitation. I just can’t bring myself to pay $12.50 after taxes and fees to sit in an aggressively air-conditioned, possibly bed bug-infested New York City movie theater to watch these sisters lend gravitas to Stockett’s white heroine mythology. I’m sorry, but the trailer alone features way too many group hugs to be trusted.
I’ve fallen for the "Give it a chance! The performances are great! Support black actors!" okey doke too many times. I paid cash money for "Monster’s Ball" because I’d heard Mos Def did the damn thing—and my blood pressure still hasn’t returned to normal. I did the same for "Precious" and fell out with several people who insisted that I ignore its rampant colorism, lack of systemic critique and the director’s obvious hatred for fat brown female bodies. I even gave Tyler Perry’s "For Colored Girls" a try, only to be betrayed by that hamfisted, gay-vilifying storyline about the DL black husband who (of course) gives his wife AIDS.
So I’m passing on "The Help." And I’m feeling vindicated by several very smart reviews. The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday confirmed what I suspected—that the narrative of black maids Aibileen and Minny "is structured largely around their white female benefactor." Citing "The Blind Side," Sandra Bullock’s odious Oscar vehicle, Hornaday goes on to ask why Hollywood keeps this tradition going: That this is the story we keep telling ourselves is all the more puzzling—if not galling—when viewers consider that, precisely at the time that "The Help" transpires, African Americans across Mississippi were registering to vote and agitating for political change. In other words, they were helping themselves. Right!
Nelson George smartly recommends that people unfamiliar with Civil Rights struggle see Henry Hampton’s groundbreaking "Eyes on the Prize" documentary instead. Hampton’s documentary slides powerfully from one witness to another, giving little-known organizers equal weight with the Dr. Kings and Rosa Parkses of the movement. Ms. Stockett, a white woman who toiled for five years on "The Help," uses the voices of three women (Skeeter, an emerging white liberal writer, and Minny and Aibileen, two black maids she persuades to tell their stories) to telescope a wide range of emotions and experiences in the Jim Crow Mississippi of 1962. If Skeeter is Ms. Stockett’s stand-in, then she makes a bold stretch by using local dialect to voice the experiences of the black women, creating a false sense of authenticity that’s vital to the novel.
A larger problem for anyone interested in the true social drama of the era is that the film’s candy-coated cinematography and anachronistic super-skinny Southern belles are part of a strategy that buffers viewers from the era’s violence. The maids who tell Skeeter their stories speak of the risks they are taking, but the sense of physical danger that hovered over the civil rights movement is mostly absent. Along with "Eyes on the Prize," I strongly recommend people read Isabel Wilkerson’s epic great migration narrative, "The Warmth of Other Suns." It’s nuanced, historically accurate, *and* ridiculously engaging.
The best review of "The Help" I’ve read so far was written by novelist Martha Southgate. She ethers the novel and film so throughly that I almost feel sorry for Hollywood’s historical fantasy merchants. Almost. Anyway, an excerpt:
There have been thousands of words written about Stockett’s skills, her portrayal of the black women versus the white women, her right to tell this story at all. I won’t rehash those arguments, except to say that I found the novel fast-paced but highly problematic. Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.
The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight — and more importantly, it was not their idea.
Implicit in "The Help" and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation. What’s more, to imply that what the maids Aibileen and Minny are working against wasn’t truly dangerous is simply a refusal on everyone’s part to believe that ”we’re all the same underneath” and to simplify the horrors of Jim Crow to a truly damaging degree.
This isn’t the first time the civil rights movement has been framed this way fictionally, especially on film. Most Hollywood civil rights movies feature white characters in central, sometimes nearly solo, roles. My favorite (not!) is Alan Parker’s "Mississippi Burning", which gives us two white FBI agents as heroes of the movement. FBI agents! Given that J. Edgar Hoover did everything short of shoot Martin Luther King Jr. himself in order to damage or discredit the movement, that goes from troubling to appalling. For me, that about covers it. Are you going to see "The Help"? If you saw it already, what do you think about it? Do tell in the comments!