The Help by Kathyrn Stockett was seemingly read by every book club member in America the last few years. When I first heard about the novel, I knew I would never read it, at least not for pleasure. The story of “the help,” even a fictional one, should not be told by the white children under their care, especially without permission to do so. Those white children should tell their own stories and feelings about how they were raised, not assume to understand the experiences of the women who raised them. And for the story to be yet another white protagonist fairy tale of how poor black women and their apparently absent and/or violent black men obviously couldn’t get civil rights for themselves? Egregious. Obviously, I don’t mean that whites played no impact on the Civil Rights movement or have no claim to say they did. But The Help is essentially the story of patronizing, know-better whites who help poor suffering put upon persons of color gain freedom. It’s an old trope (see also: Avatar, Dances with Wolves) that is not only offensive, it’s patently untrue in the case of Jim Crow South. Which is why the Association of Black Women Historians, among others, decided to call out the gross historical inaccuracies of The Help when the inevitable film was released.
This film turned out to be as big a hit as the book was, with several of its performances sweeping the Globes and the SAG awards. I admit that the idea of the film bothered me a smidge less, despite the director turned out to be another one of those white people telling the story of the women of color who raised him. Sigh. I guess I was more forgiving because women of color would be speaking the lines, making it their own, literally giving voice to these women. Also, I love Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in almost everything they are in and I admit that their performances are quite spectacular. And both accesses have acknowledge the controversy, including this great conversation on Oprah. (side note: I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. I’m not the biggest Oprah fan, but that’s another story for another time.) The focus of the controversy seems to be about the two actresses winning praise for playing maids, which is not quite my criticism. It’s portraying a maid that gets my goat, though that brings up a lot about institutionalized racism in Hollywood and lack of diverse roles for persons of color. Rather, it is that in The Help, the maids’ voices don’t matter until a white person tells them it does. This is patronizing and historically untrue to the struggle of the women both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis are genuinely trying to honor with their beautiful performances. If only Hollywood would make a film that wasn’t about Emma Stone’s Skeeter and her coming-of-age tale as a successful writer, but about Minny’s daughters as she has to begin caring for white children when still a child herself. Or even just Viola’s joy at telling her own story, and not because some young white girl tells her to. That’s the real pickle, folks.
Another concern I had with the The Help, is the portrayal of all these ignorant, single-minded, racist Southerners out to get black people for some uncarticulated reason. Yes Southerners like this existed (but not with these horrible accents, btw) and the majority of the white culture at the time participated in Jim Crow in one way or another, even if they weren’t putting white hoods on or using fire hoses to spray young children. But the stereotype of the one-dimensional, racist lady we see with Hilly Holbrook is simplistic and therefore dangerous. It only plays into the white hero trope. Furthermore, it’s weak storytelling to have Hilly’s outsides match her ugly insides, which her mother can’t even love! Oh, the subtlety! And underlying misogyny, to boot: if a woman has a cold sore, she is undesirable and horrible and of no value. What frustrates me so much with Hilly as a character is that it’s unclear why the focused hatred versus standard racism of the time: is she just a daddy pleaser, who is hinted at as quite the racist by Hilly’s mother? Is she overwhelmed by anger that her one true love left her for a bumpkin (Jessica Chastain in another great performance), so she takes it out on the help? Perhaps understanding what these Southerners were really afraid of and resisting (way of life, fear of change, challenges to status quo, not knowing any better, being women without power themselves so exerting it where they could, etc.) would have made this generic, run-of-the-mill mean girl more compelling. And also more terrifying real, like the employers the actual help experienced in their struggles, which wasn’t just fodder for a slapstick joke scene, as we see with Millie encountering the man of the house she keeps.
Fans of the film and the book think that critics of The Help should just stop being so negative but, as much as the film used all its emotionally manipulative wiles to get me to do just that, I just can’t buy into this story. Or ignore my knowledge of the real history of these women. As the Association of Black Women Histories said so well:
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.
The Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actress (Viola Davis), and Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain)
Obviously I don’t think that The Help should win Best Picture. I mean, you read what I wrote yeah? But, I would love to see Viola Davis win Best Actress, as she was great in Doubt but lost to Penelope Cruz. Or Octavia Spencer continue her awards sweep and not just because it’s wonderful when black actors and actresses win amidst the white middle-aged male backdrop that is the Academy. However, I just saw Albert Nobbs, and although Glenn Close has not been winning any awards this season, she blew me away. And in a similar “life has give me shit, but yet I stand here with solid face and emotional eyes” way that Viola has in The Help. That said, I definitely won’t be disappointed if Ms. Davis or Ms. Spencer win on Oscar Sunday. Despite my criticism of their film, their performances are truly sublime.