Special Issue 19.5

The Help: Ahistorical Hollywood feel good story or a teaching moment?

OK, so I just published Issue 19 over the weekend and received Opinion8ed2’s first reader-inspired blog thread. You may not have noticed Eileen’s contribution (it’s just over a few inches to the right) but she initiated a discussion on a very interesting/difficult subject, i.e., the issue of good old American racism specifically of the Jim Crow variety in 1963 Jackson Mississippi as covered in the recent novel and Hollywood interpretation of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. It’s a novel that I know more than a few of you have read and probably many have seen in the theater.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is a fictionalized account of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an upper middle class young white woman who wants to be a writer and is inspired to tell the story of what she recognizes as racist treatment of African American women working as maids in the white households of America, but especially acute in Mississippi. In my reply I maintain that the story needs telling now more than ever and that although The Help is actually Skeeter’s story, Stockett successfully introduces the realities of racism to a whole new generation of Americans and is a reminder for the rest of us.

Just as Eileen maintains, African American professor and journalist Melissa Harris-Perry feels the story sugar coats the horrors of racism and doesn’t adequately deal with the depths of its true evil (see her video at http://www.rawstory.com/rawreplay/2011/08/melissa-harris-perry-the-help-movie-ahistorical-and-deeply-troubling/).  

It’s true that the principal symbol of Southern racism is portrayed in terms of the indignities of segregated rest rooms rather than rape. And the cold blooded murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, shot in front of his Jackson home on June 12, 1963 is peripheral to the story and is mentioned only in passing.

But racism is still the central theme of the book/movie and Skeeter gradually begins to see it engrained in her culture everywhere she looks. None of her friends or family is immune to its reach and her awakening is not an easy adjustment. Her project is based on winning the trust and confidence of African American women to share their personal stories and that too, realistically does not come easily. Overshadowed by the debate over its politics, is the craftsmanship of Stockett’s writing and along with director Tate Taylor, successful adaptation to the screen.

So, let’s hear what you think. Send a blog comment and stop back for a real discussion.


Published in: on August 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. Paul writes: “what makes The Diary of Anne Frank and Schndler’s List so gut wrenching is not the depiction of the gruesome details of Nazi war crimes but rather the telling of how those atrocities affected their lives and those of their families and loved ones.”

    Although I agree with this statement, I think this is a flawed comparison to The Help for two reasons. Holocaust literature typically focuses on the victims, and The Help is told through the eyes of a white woman, while the criticisms Stager cites are from the ABWH, a black organization. In addition, history has given us a clear picture of the horrors of Naziism and the Holocaust, while many (white) Americans still do not appreciate the full impact of slavery and discrimination on the black community. Stager’s criticism resonates with me when he says “I wonder what the reaction would be to a film in which happy Auschwitz prisoners help their Nazi captors find their voice? Would we take classes of eighth graders to see that film?”

    I’m sure The Help is eye-opening to some (whites), and others, such as Mary and Don (also white), can relate to it through their own experience, however none of us can know what it was like to be a black woman in the South during that time. For that reason I believe it is important to respect the criticism by the ABWH, and use it to examine how our own experiences have shaped our response to the film. That is the teachable moment. This just may be a film that speaks very differently to blacks and whites. If that results in a dialogue that improves mutual understanding, then it is all for the best.


  2. Here is another critical commentary from a teacher educator.


    Editors response: Thanks again Jeff. I found Gary Stager’s piece interesting but his arguments essentially echo those of Melissa Harris-Perry and the Association of Black Women Historians. As Rick points out in his comment, Stockett chose to frame her work as a personal story rather than an as an all-encompassing broad historical one. And as your friends can attest she was successful in exposing some of the ways thinly veiled but well ingrained racism impacted those personal stories. But the two are not mutually exclusive…I agree with Stager that the book and movie provide a teachable moment for educators (and bloggers alike). Why not use that moment to dig deeper and supplement what people know, rather than dimiss The Help as a liberal feel-good story. Regarding his analogy with stories of the Holocaust, what makes The Diary of Anne Frank and Schndler’s List so gut wrenching is not the depiction of the gruesome details of Nazi war crimes but rather the telling of how those atrocities affected their lives and those of their families and loved ones.


  3. I felt both the book and movie, THE HELP hit the mark. It was a story about one particular white woman’s experience growing up in the South within the context of the Civil Rights movement. The author, Katherine Stockett did not set out to write a sweeping novel to cover all aspects re racial tensions in the South. I feel that the ABWH is missing the point of this personal story. By limiting the scope of her narrative to what she herself experienced either directly and/or indirectly, Stockett’s novel packs a bigger punch. The ABWH is correct that the author does not give extensive coverage to the KKK and their overt terrorism. Instead she keenly portrays the underlying racial attitudes of ”….attractive, well dressed society women..” that I would argue in their own way are equally insidious. I believe it was Stalin who, in regard to the persecution of his enemies, stated something to the affect that one million is just a number…but the portrayal of one human suffering…that’s a story!
    Editor’s response: Rick, thanks for your contribution. Very well stated.


  4. Not having read the book or seen the movie, I can’t really comment on it directly, but we were talking about it tonight. We were with friends Mary and her husband Don (not their real names) who grew up in the South. Don grew up in Arkansas, and they happen to be Jewish. Anyway, Mary was telling us that she and Don went to see the movie yesterday, and they found it incredibly moving and Don was bawling at a few points. He grew up with a black housekeeper, and was at one point sent away to school because the family was concerned about what might happen where they lived. Don is about our age, maybe a few years older, so this must have been in the midst of things in the 60s. Based on our conversations with them, I’m sure they were quite progressive for Arkansas during that time. Once when Don came home, he found the housekeeper wasn’t there. He was told that she had died, but knowing how close he was to her his family wouldn’t tell him while he was away at school because they knew how upsetting he would find it. Mary said that both she and Don felt The Help told a very true story.

    In contrast to Mary and Don’s reactions, I recently read an email from the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), (attached below) which claims the novel and movie presented a highly distorted picture of life for blacks in the south and raises some interesting questions. No doubt there are historical inaccuracies in the film, but if it leads to some people gaining greater insight into a life that was far removed from their own experience, and raises their level of empathy with others, does that benefit outweigh the problems associated with the inaccuracies? What is the trade-off between getting people into the theater or to read the book, and being precise in portraying life as it was? Some might argue that a good film or a good book doesn’t have to make those tradeoffs, but then again, is The Help one person’s perspective or an attempt to be definitive about everybody’s perspective? Since this is a white woman’s story, I would expect those who view the time from a black perspective might have a different reaction. The reality is that the experience of white privilege and black oppression often prevents a convergence of perspectives between blacks and whites when it comes to issues of race and racism. That the movie has gotten people talking about these issues seems to be proof of its value.


    Here’s the email I received from the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH):

    An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help:

    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.

    Suggested Reading:
    Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress
    The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James
    Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley
    The Street by Ann Petry
    A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight

    Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation
    Household by Thavolia Glymph
    To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter
    Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones
    Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
    Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

    Any questions, comments, or interview requests can be sent to:

    Editor’s response: Thanks Jeff for sharing that anecdote and the message from ABWH. Your assessment is well framed. This is exactly the kind of dialogue I hoped would be stimulated on this thorny issue


  5. Saw the movie, but didn’t read the book. Thought the movie was great – great story line. I have long been inspired by Dr Marten Luther King. His adherence to non-violence saved this country from a lot more bloodshed and a second civil war.


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