Probably those who greenlit The Help never imagined it would be birthed into a racially contentious time in our history. It’s 2011 and we have our nation’s first black president – the shit has mostly hit the fan, but let’s face it – race relations have never entirely cooled down, not when Rodney King was beaten up, not when OJ was set free, not during Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, not now, when Obama and his very black family live in the very White House. We can all pretend like it isn’t still a controversial topic, and that we’ve moved beyond racism and all of that – but we haven’t. The only thing, in fact, that keeps it from stirring up is the contrived political correctness we all try to adhere to.
The other thing that can sometimes help is talking about it in a realistic way. One important voice missing in this whole debate around The Help is Oprah Winfrey. Oprah would use her show, perhaps, to address some of these issues — her show was kind of like a town hall meeting for women (the main audience for the film) and the African American community. But there is no Oprah so now people are taking sides. But I wondered, though, how this ends up helping or hurting people like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, two strong black performances in an atmosphere that discourages them. Will they get flushed down the toilet with the rest of the shitstorm? Hm.
Davis, in particular, mostly carries the film (except when we have to endure the white people’s insignificant story — waaaaa, they took away my nanny, waaaa) is hurt, I think, by the firestorm aimed at the film.
I find myself of two minds (who cares what I think). On the one hand, I see the wrong in the film. I see how embarrassing some of the scenes are – and the enduring bad taste left by a story that celebrates a white character who makes her career (goes to New York to become a famous writer) on the backs of black maids who have to stick it out in Jackson, MS. Sure, they try to deal with this head on in the film by having Emma Stone say “I can’t just leave you here.” She says this to her mother, who is dying, and to the two maids who risked their jobs, and even their lives, to have their stories told. In fact, they handled this threat in the film by making it as scary and dangerous as riding the riverboat through the Pirates of the Caribbean. It never feels real – it always feels like it’s been slathered with a layer of Gaussian blur.
But I also see that this is a rare opportunity for a mainstream Hollywood film to represent strong female characters, two of them black. To shut it down or protest its existence, doesn’t that make it all the more difficult for black actresses to work at all? If it isn’t exactly to our liking, politically, must it get buried?
I’m just wondering is all.
Now, on to the firestorm. The Association of Black Women Historians had this to say in a statement released to the press to help explain their position:
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 ofTheHelp. 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.
Even they too must acknowledge that this does hurt the Oscar chances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer:
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.
And this video:
Indiewire’s ReelPolitik also goes after the film, and those who support it — even if just for the performances:
In his 1965 essay, “White Man’s Guilt,” James Baldwin writes about America’s racism: “One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives. The fact that Americans, white Americans, have not yet been able to do this- to face their history, to change their lives-hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world.”
Forty-six years later, it seems, the American white establishment still can’t seem to understand that they are responsible for racial discrimination and subjugation, and not, as “The Help” would have it, responsible for breaking down those walls.
I also can’t help wonder what does it say about “The Help” that Ablene Cooper, an African American nanny and housekeeper who works for “The Help” author Kathryn Stockett’s brother and sister-in-law, filed a lawsuit against Stockett, claiming that the central African American maid in the novel — a woman named Aibileen Clark and portrayed in the film by Viola Davis — was based largely on her likeness without her approval. A judge will decide on the case next week, as millions of Americans will fork over cash, enriching more white Americans. The exploitation continues.
I hope that Ablene Cooper reaps some of the profits from the film.
Again, it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m just a dumb white Oscar blogger who has no idea what it is like to live as an African American today, never mind in the 1960s in Mississippi. But I see the Oscar race not as a celebration, necessarily, of the best. It is partly that. But it is also a political race. Most of the time those who rewarded are white, and male. Movies with all black characters unless those characters are lampooned caricatures (Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry) they don’t make money therefore they don’t drive the industry. If you think white actresses over 40 have a hard time getting work, just try imagining black actresses over 40.
Watching The Help I was able to put aside my disgust with the just plain dumb glossing over of what was taking place back then and was able to see the characters as realized by Davis and Spencer. Maybe that’s because most period films like that deal in falsehoods. The Bryce Dallas Howard character was a typical bitch (note how the men mostly get a pass – it is all of the evil women driving the racist attitudes). Jessica Chastain was a whore with a heart of gold – another stereotype. Even Emma Stone’s character was a cookie-cutter tomboy girlwriter. We’ve seen them all before. Maybe that cynicism made it easier for me to recognize how wonderful Davis and Spencer were in this film.
I hope the debate continues. Let’s hear it for people who get mad and stay mad. You never want anyone to shut up — but let’s also remember that when you’re talking about Oscars and performances it isn’t on Davis and Spencer’s back to solve the world’s problems with race. It isn’t on their back to scream at the filmmakers and the writer of the novel to make it a better story. They were required to deliver great performances. And they did that. Applauding them doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t talk about the things in the film that were offensive.
What do you all think, Oscarwatchers?