Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Help

I sort of watched The Help last night. It was on. I sat and read and I cooked some stuff while it was on. I didn't really care for it, but that may not mean anything.

It bothered me more than I thought it would that the main character is a white, bourgeois recent journalism school grad. She returns to her home in Mississippi in 1963. She's enlightened. She's appalled at how the other bourgeoisie treat the black women who work for them as maids. She's also intent on a career in journalism and she figures out a way to achieve her goal. She starts interviewing maids about their lives.

With movies, there has to be some obvious growth and change in the main character over the course of the film. That's why, when Spielberg made his Holocaust movie, he made a Nazi industrialist the main character. When Hollywood did its movie about anti-Semitism, (Gentleman's Agreement, 1947) they showed it through the eyes of a Christian (or at least a non-Jewish) reporter who pretends to be Jewish to get his story.

So it might have made some sense to have white protagonist. But with The Help, you have a white liberal protagonist who's already anti-racist. The growth and change her character goes through is a coming of age thing not related to the lives of the black women she's documenting.

I didn't care for the scatological thing the movie had going. There was constant talk about toilets and after a certain point, there's a lot of talk about one of the maids feeding her erstwhile employer a pie containing fecal matter. This was a major plot point in the movie. But how did the maid know that this wouldn't be detectable? How did she know that such a pie would be edible? Did she sample it herself?

The Association of Black Women Historians put out a statement on the movie:

...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.


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 smart, 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.

...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.

Click here to read the entire statement.

On the other hand, I might note here that I listened to a discussion on public radio of the book and movie. A number of black women whose mothers and grandmothers worked as domestics called in and were very happy with the movie.

A movie I liked better with a vaguely similar theme was Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes' 2002 feature, made in the style of a 1950s Douglas Sirk melodrama, about an upper-middle-class housewife who develops a relationship with her black gardener after discovering that her husband is gay.

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