Film Review: The Help
(what I generally tell people when they ask if I like it) I think you’ll like it! The costumes are great! If you’re someone who either knows nothing about history or is able to suspend your knowledge for the sake of enjoyment, it is likely you’ll enjoy this film.
If you are white and a woman and you’re not given to analyzing power dynamics you will enjoy this movie. It is an enjoyable movie overall, except I had these nagging feelings of discomfort throughout that kind of ruined it.
There are a couple of things about this movie that make me uncomfortable. For one thing, the big civil rights issue seems to be not being allowed to use an employer’s toilet. This, while both true and appalling, still seems to whitewash the actual issues.
White people were doing far worse things to black people in 1960s Mississippi. In addition to their Ladies League, can we acknowledge that these women very likely belonged to the KKK and their husbands certainly would have?
Lynching and violence were realities that are scarcely mentioned in this film that is ostensibly about civil rights and racism. Often being denied the toilet was the least of their problems — white men are portrayed as benign duffers “oh you ladies” who don’t get involved in household squabbles. In fact, domestic service put African-American women in a very precarious position sexually and the situation was ripe for abuse.
I realize it’s a light fluff piece, but The Help takes on racism without really taking it on, presumably because that would make the throngs of white people who love this movie uncomfortable. And yes, I am white so I can’t speak for African Americans. But I would be uncomfortable in their shoes.
The real heroine of this story is not Aibileen or Minny, the two African American maids who run real risks to speak out, it is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the white girl who has nothing to lose and everything to gain from getting the scoop on the maids.
Why are we cheering over a happy ending? Yes, Skeeter overcomes her boorish boyfriend and provincial background to achieve a glorious and glamorous dream career in New York. But one maid loses her job and doubtless will be blackballed from all employment in Jackson. The other would be in the same situation except she gets this dream job being a maid in a huge house that apparently involves taking a bus way out into the countryside. A white woman gives black women a voice. It isn’t exactly an empowering narrative for African Americans.
Where are the African American men in this movie? Surely there were happy and stable relationships between men and women of color, yet the only positive or even present male character is the pastor. The maid’s husband/partner is abusive and drunk which only perpetuates negative stereotypes about African American men and families. The maids are also portrayed in a stereotypical way, speaking not with Mississippi accents, but fake-sounding “black” accents. They are portrayed in the stereotype of the Mammy.
From “An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help” published on the Association of Black Women Historians website:
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.
So yes, you’ll probably enjoy The Help because it is designed to put white people on the heroic side of the Civil Rights Movement, instead of our actual place as the villains. And were there white people fighting for Civil Rights? Yes. But it isn’t our story and appropriating it is inappropriate.
Racism is alive and well today, and what strides toward equality minorities have made are, in general, no thanks to white middle-class people. Then again, I’m just an intellectual harpy who loves to find fault and can’t enjoy anything.