I was one of many Americans who went and saw The Help during its opening weekend. Admittedly, I enjoyed it just as much as I did the book it was based on. You can read some of my immediate thoughts about the film here.
In short, the film had its flaws (as did the book), but in no way did I think those flaws were so devastating as to render this film unwatchable or racist. However, some in the black community disagree with me on this point. The primary criticisms seem to be the following (list not all-inclusive):
- The Help portrayed black women as the long-enduring Mammy stereotype: asexual, loyal and contented caretakers of whites (as defined by the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH)). I didn't get this impression whatsoever from the film. Neither Abileen nor Minny were "content" in their jobs as maids, all-too-happy to care for and please their white employers. Quite the contrary. It was clear at every point in the movie, from facial expressions and body language to candid conversations held in private or with those they trusted, that they were far from satisfied with their jobs or employers' mistreatment of them or the racist community in which they lived. No, mammies they were not.
- The Help misrepresented African American speech and dialect. I actually agree with this assertion, more so for the book than the film. I absolutely hated the supposed "black dialect" in the book. In my opinion, it was simply wrong, making it both difficult and intellectually painful to read the book at times. I would silently substitute words and change sentence structures in order to make whole passages readable.
One of the criticisms I also came across on this matter noted how a dialect was used for blacks in the book but not for whites, giving the impression that only blacks had a "flawed" use of language. I had to pull out my old copy of the book to refresh my memory on this one. And you know what? This criticism is 100% accurate. In the book, blacks speak with clipped, broken English while the speech of whites is virtually flawless.
Now, as a woman who once lived in the South for a substantial number of years (and with living relatives from the South), I can tell you without a doubt that BOTH blacks and whites share a *special* use of the English language in that part of the country. When I moved there as a teenager back in the day, it took me months (and, no, I am not exaggerating) to understand either group. It was as if they were speaking a totally different language. Granted, each group has a unique way of speaking this "Southern" (or, as some circles call it, "country") form of English, but they EACH do speak it. And that should've been portrayed in both the book and the movie.
- Black domestics suffered inhumane abuses inside the white households they labored in, in particular sexual abuse and rape and this was not portrayed in the movie. I agree. However, to have such portrayals in The Help would have made this film an altogether different type of movie, one the author and filmmaker never set out to make. In fact, I would have been surprised had the film taken such a turn, especially since this was not the primary focus of the book, but rather Abileen and Minny were.
I went into the theatre expecting to see a story about Abileen and Minny and to experience their daily lives and the emotions they battle within the context of their relationship with one another and their white female employers. Yes, this is only one small layer amongst many during a horrific period in history; however, it was one I was interested in seeing explored nonetheless. Also, it is one that often gets ignored (i.e. the relationship between black and white women and the race dynamic that often exists between the two).
As a black woman, I know all too well that there definitely IS one. I can only hope that more books and movies explore this rarely-acknowledged dichotomy of personalities and experiences. It existed in Jim Crow America and it exists now.
- The Help gave minimal attention to the real-life horrors of the segregated South, giving a sanitized version of the terrorism inflicted upon the black community at this point in history. I didn't come away with this impression at all, perhaps because this was not the type of movie I went to see (nor expected to see). I wanted to know about Abileen and Minny, in particular, and one particular aspect of their lives, in general.
Make no mistake. These criticisms ARE valid; however, part of me feels as if we are being a bit unfair to the author and filmmakers. It's as if we expected Kathryn Stockett, a white woman, to give us Roots, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mississippi Burning, A Time to Kill, Malcolm X and To Kill a Mockingbird all wrapped into one perfectly packaged story. All the while, Ms. Stockett would still have to find a way to write the story SHE wanted to tell while accomplishing such a feat. Sound a bit unfair? It does to me, especially when we don't hold some of our own writers and filmmakers to the same standard.
Many critics of The Help almost sound as if Ms. Stockett wrote another version of The Birth of a Nation with the way they describe her portrayals of Abileen, Minny and the greater black community. Again, the book and movie are not without its flaws. Personally, I cringed at Minny's overemphasized and repeated declarations of love for "fried chicken" in the movie (one of the flaws I acknowledge the film has). Incorporating this oft-repeated, ugly and racist stereotype into the film was certainly unnecessary and offensive. However, there are far more stereotypes and racist messaging incorporated into our daily television programming and news coverage than what was present on the screen in The Help. I simply did not see this overabundance of racism or lack of racial integrity, not like I do everyday on television.
- The Help revolved around the white protagonist Skeeter with the black maids only serving as a backdrop to her story. I did not come away with this impression at all and this was definitely a concern of mine when I walked inside the movie theatre. While seeing the movie, I felt the reverse was true: Abileen and Minny were the main characters with Skeeter and her story serving as the backdrop. If anything, her character was a narrative/storytelling tool, used to expose the true feelings and motivations of the "other side" - i.e. those held by many white female employers, in particular the ones Abileen and Minny encountered.
Skeeter enlisted the help of Abileen, Minny and other black maids to write The Help not because she cared about them, their point of view or exposing the wrongs committed against them, but rather because of her own ambition and desire to work in a big New York City literary firm. I did not come away with this impression of Skeeter and why she did what she did at all. Yes, she wanted to be a "real writer," a career she saw as one that entailed writing newsworthy, thought-provoking stories. However, this desire was not her sole motivation for pursuing The Help. If it was, she could have, and likely would have, chosen a less-threatening, more socially-acceptable topic, but she didn't.
Although Skeeter was a white woman, she too faced serious dangers by writing such a book (had her identity and those of the maids become known). No, she wouldn't face an instant death sentence like Abileen, Minny or the other maids, but her participation in the endeavor would assuredly make Jackson (and greater South) an unsafe place for her to remain because she would most assuredly be labeled a race traitor.
Thus, in both the book and the movie, I got the sense that the story itself - the telling of these maids' experiences in white households from THEIR perspective - was more important to Skeeter than some *possible* success she may achieve as a result of it, especially when she thought about Constantine, the woman who raised her. In fact, I felt as if writing the book was a way for Skeeter to be closer to Constantine, a mother-figure she loved and clearly missed. It was also a way for her to understand their relationship in a way she couldn't as a child.
Additionally, the assertion that Skeeter exploited these maids for her own personal gain is absurd. If this was her plan or the type of character she had, she would have kept all of the advance money for herself. Instead, she split the money equally among ALL of the maids. Furthermore, Skeeter did not plan to take the job in New York or leave Jackson, for that matter. She felt she was needed at home, both for her mother and to weather the storm with the maids. However, it was Abileen and Minny that urged her to leave and pursue her dream, reminding her that she no longer belonged in Jackson and could do more good by leaving.
Lastly, I take offense to the fact that none of The Help's critics seem to recognize that Abileen's and Minny's participation in The Help was both an act of courage AND a form of social activism. It was important to shed light on the injustices these women suffered at the hands of their white employers and they made that choice at great risk to themselves and greater community. Just because their acts of defiance didn't come in the form of a public boycott, protest or sit-in doesn't make them any less courageous or worthy of acknowledgement.
Abileen and Minny are heroes, too. When I left the movie theatre last Saturday, THAT is the message I, a black woman, came away with ... even with all of the film's flaws.