The Help, You Say

“The Help” is a heartwarming tale of one woman’s journey overcoming 1960’s southern sexism. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (played by Emma Stone) convinces her mother and her town that finding a job can be as fulfilling as finding a man. Tate Taylor’s film–presumably like Kathryn Stockett‘s book, which I have not read–also includes a large sub-plot about black maids serving white families. That is where it gets into trouble: the movie pretends to be about racial justice, but it really isn’t. Its tagline is “Change begins with a whisper,” and it barely whispers about race. Oh, we see the black maids (played exceedingly well by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) get mistreated by their employers, and we do feel some of their pain, but the main emotional arc of the movie is Skeeter’s emerging feminism.

Because it has been advertised as a movie about racial justice, and because we still have hopes for movies that will help us engage the complex issues of race in the USA, some reviewers have criticized the movie for not doing enough.

The Association of Black Women Historians wrote (pdf), “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.” Valerie Boyd, writing at ArtsCriticATL, quotes Attorney Genernal Eric Holder as she names this a “feel-good movie for a cowardly nation” (cowardly on matters of race). Boyd writes, “Skeeter never questions the system itself. She is no civil rights pioneer; she just wants to write a good book.” By the end of the film, Skeeter appears to have an *inkling* of how dangerous it was for the maids she interviewed, but she appears to be little changed by that knowledge. Similarly, the movie audience will have a slightly deeper understanding of 1960s race relations, but will likely be unchanged.

Seeing the maids and their plight on the big screen, even in this partial, sanitized version, is better than not seeing them at all. If this is the next small step along the path to full enlightenment, I guess I won’t fault the director or the author too much. I also applaud the critics for pointing out how much further we have to go.

The Help is well-made and well-acted; although it does not really engage the deepest issues, it does tell a compelling story. It does not have whiz-bang special effects, or grand scenic vistas, so you don’t *need* to see it on the big screen. However, if enough of us watch it at the theaters, maybe more filmmakers will be interested in presenting (yet deeper?!) tales of race and class. Like virtually all mainstream movies, it supports the status quo—in particular, it promulgates the Great American myth that we can always overcome any circumstance, if we just show enough pluck and gumption.

The movie is definitely worth seeing (and talking about, afterwards). If you want to explore the real lives of black domestic servants, here is a list compiled by the ABWH:

Fiction:

Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life, by Alice Childress
The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley
The Street by Ann Petry
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight

Non-Fiction:

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody

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