The Help (2011) Artemus Ward Dept. of Political Science Northern Illinois University firstname.lastname@example.org
Introduction Is The Help different from previous films that feature African- Americans? We will ask whether this film is an example of a "post-race" society—the brave new Utopia promised by the election of Barack Obama—or an illustration of a more troubling reality? Has Hollywood moved past the fragmented portrayal of African- Americans so prevalent in the post-blacksploitation films of the late 20 th century? Have white Americans become all too content to talk about race in the past tense—as a knotty problem that finally got solved— as opposed to one that now might actually be more complicated than ever?
Black Ads: Then Through most of the 20th century, images of African- Americans in advertising were mainly limited to servants like the pancake-mammy Aunt Jemima and Rastus, the chef on the Cream of Wheat box. Imagine a Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep during the era of the Negro as household retainer and woke up in 2012. He would be struck speechless by billboards and commercials featuring affluent black people advising consumers on pharmaceuticals, real estate, financial services and the virtues of owning expensive cars.
Black Ads: Now The kind of transformation that took place in advertising has yet to take hold in the dramatic arts. Why? Advertisers, who must create the world anew every day, have to keep close tabs on changing social and cultural realities. The industry began to normalize images of black affluence in response to the civil rights revolution, and embraced those images as it became clear that they were good for selling breakfast cereal and mutual funds, too. The dramatic arts are less nimble, partly because they draw on material that is rarely written and produced by people of color and therefore often firmly rooted in a past that allowed for only a narrow, impoverished view of African-American life.
Kathryn Stockett On Feb. 10, 2009, exactly three weeks after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" was published in the United States. The book was initially rejected by dozens of literary agents on its road to publication. The New York Times review was mixed, but correctly predicted that it was going to be "wildly popular." A more favorable review in Publisher's Weekly took note of the book's excellent timing: On the heels of the first black president being swept into the White House on a wave of populist enthusiasm, here was an "optimistic, uplifting debut novel" that re-examined the wounds of the Civil Rights era. For her part, the Jackson, Mississippi-born Stockett says she never set out to tap into a cultural zeitgeist or make any grand proclamations about race relations. She just wanted to write a compelling story, partly inspired by the maids who helped raise her in the late 1970s and '80s. "The Help" struck a chord, and then it turned into a phenomenon. By the summer of 2009, it had lodged itself high on the New York Times bestseller list. By the end of 2010, it had sold more than 3 million hardcover copies. As of August 2011, it has sold five million copies and has spent more than 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list.
Post-Racial Feminism? The book jacket trumpets: “A big, warm girlfriend of a book about female love that transcends race and class” The Times. New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni saw the movie as “…a story of female grit and solidarity — of strength through sisterhood.” He wrote, “The book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, told me that she felt that most civil rights literature had taken a male perspective, leaving ‘territory that hadn’t been covered much.’” Is this a 2012 post-racial story about female empowerment and solidarity?
Southern Race Relations The film portrays the conflicts of everyday life in 1960s Mississippi -- black maids working in white homes, where they raise and nurture the children, clean house and cook the meals, but are not good enough to use the same bathrooms as their employers, or be trusted not to steal the silver they so diligently polish. This portrayal of the everyday interactions among whites and black suggests that, in many ways, the North is a much more segregated society than the South. How so? How would a northerner—someone who did not grow up and was not from the South—react to this film?
The Great White Hope African-Americans have a long history of being portrayed in film in relation to the “other”; the white character who is usually depicted as the savior: To Kill a Mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, Mississippi Burning, A Time To Kill, The Blind Side… The Help is no different. It is ultimately Emma Stone's story—a tale of a white woman who triumphs on the shoulders of black characters. Working in secret, Emma Stone persuades Viola Davis to get other maids to talk about their lives. Even when Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer is narrating the story, it's Emma Stone whose actions dictate the narrative. Will she be able to secure enough interview subjects? Will she finish her book before the deadline imposed by an editor in New York? Will she ever find a good man. The film, like all films of this type, allows whites to feel good about the way black and white characters band together in the face of racism, even as it also reaffirms a "whites lead, blacks follow" social structure. Ultimately, The Help takes Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s stories and gives ownership of them to Emma Stone.
Mammy and Scarlet Redux Viola Davis seems to privilege the white child that she cares for over the children of her black friends. She is indifferent to Octavia Spencer and her children’s abuse yet worries over the white child’s abuse. Is this any different from the relationship between Mammy and Scarlet in Gone with the Wind? Indeed, the relationship between older, wiser black character and younger, often a child, white character not limited to mammies. In that sense the origin of the “magical negro” lies in the privileging of the white “other” from birth by African- Americans.
Racist/ Insensitive Vernacular? Does the way that the African-American characters speak differ from white characters? Writing for Ms. Magazine, Erin Aubry Kaplan wonders, “Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have?” Consider these sentences from one of the Viola Davis chapters in the book, written in a voice that occupies an awkward middle ground, somewhere between Alice Walker's carefully wrought diction in "The Color Purple" and an "Amos 'n' Andy" skit: "You'd never know it living here, but Jackson, Mississippi be filled with two hundred thousand peoples. I see them numbers in the paper and I got to wonder, where do them peoples live.” The Christian Science Monitor notes the same problem, wondering about the “decision to convey only black voices in dialect, with nary a dropped ‘g’ among her generally less sympathetic Southern white characters.” Hence, black characters and white characters are differenced by their supposed southern “dialect.”
Southern Man How are white men portrayed in the film? At worst one feels that the white men are merely accessories in this faux idyllic southern land of sweet tea, sprayed hair, cotton bales and rigid racial and societal role-play. Apparently Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 was ruled by women, specifically a twenty-four year old socialite named Hilly. At best white men are elevated: the forced segregation they were responsible for and the sexual harassment that they imposed on many black women who worked in their homes is ignored.
Strange Fruit How are black men depicted? Kathryn Stockett has Octavia Spencer state this: “Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got kids to think about” (Pg 311). Black men are portrayed as absent fathers and/or the classic “brutes” that Hollywood has been stereotyping from the birth of cinema. But do we actually see any black men being brutal? Why not? The reality is that black men were trying to survive in a society where they were segregated, terrorized, and killed by whites. The moved north in search of work and a better place to raise their families, joined the military, worked for little pay with no benefits or pensions, and risked their lives for civil rights. Slain civil rights activist Medgar Evars said: “We fought during the war for America, Mississippi included. Now, after the Germans and Japanese hadn’t killed us, it looked as though the white Mississippians would.” Hollywood’s failure to portray a more realistic, complex portrait of black men and black families continues the “modern” Hollywood theme of “fragmentation” where the African-American community is splintered and the cause of black America’s problems are attributed to black men.
Spike Lee on Progress Weeks away from the Feb. 2011 Academy Awards show, filmmaker Spike Lee spoke to a crowd of students, faculty and community residents at Chicago State University in honor of Black History Month: “Something crazy happened the other day. Your guy, Barack Obama, gave his third State of the Union address, and ironically, the next day, the Academy put out their Oscar nominations. In 1940, our first great actress is a slave maid. In 2012, we have two maids. The difference? They’re not slaves. Progress?”
An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help Critics charged the authors of the book and film with failing to incorporate the actual experiences and voices of African-American maids of the time, particularly given that such historical accounts and oral histories exist and are readily available. Ida E. Jones, the national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, said: “[D]espite 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." Jones concluded by saying that "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."
A Hollywood Yankee’s Version of Civil Rights In the end, the film fails to deal with the harsh brutality of the Jim Crow era and struggle for civil rights. The violence exacted by whites on blacks—lynching, burning, castrating, raping—is only suggested and never dealt with in a serious way. It simplifies the struggle to the proverbial “good guys and bad guys,” making it too easy for white audiences to see themselves comfortably on the side of the progress- leaning, post-racial enlightened. As a result, the movie’s social commentary becomes quaint, and its opportunity to approach the deep-rooted complexities of post-Civil Rights race relations is squandered. Like many grade school history books, it is too easy to swallow, too palatable, too black and white. You can’t shake the feeling that it is a movie made by Hollywood Yankees.
Tate Taylor Responds Screenwriter and Director Tate Taylor responded to the film’s critics: “All of the criticism we’ve been facing is based on the fact that I’m not an African-American director and that Kathryn is not an African-American writer,” Taylor told a British newspaper. “It suggests that race relations in my country are still very black and white. But outside of a small academic elite, it doesn’t matter.” Is Taylor right?
Awards At the 2012 Academy Awards, only Octavia Spencer won for Best Supporting Actress. Viola Davis lost to Meryl Streep for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. Davis did win a SAG award for Best Actress and the entire cast won the award best ensemble cast (SAG’s equivalent of Best Picture). The Best Picture Oscar went to the silent, black and white film The Artist.
Conclusion While The Help can be viewed as progressive on some levels, on others it is damaging—particularly in its stereotypical portrayal of blacks and whites. In this sense, it is typical white-Hollywood fare. Can we imagine a mainstream Hollywood film produced, written and directed by African Americans that accurately depicts the African- American experience? What would such a film look like? In the end, The Help is reflective of what the Obama presidency has wrought: an invitation for liberal white’s to indulge in stereotypical triumph-over-adversity underdog race-relations tales for liberal white audiences in order to assuage the guilt they feel over slavery, segregation, racism, and inequality and redirect blame, if any, onto African-American men.
Credits “How ‘The Help’ Depicts Race Relations: Letters to the Editor,” New York Times, September 4, 2011.How ‘The Help’ Depicts Race Relations: Letters to the Editor Ihejirika, Maudlyne, “Spike Lee: Oscars Stuck in 1940,” Chicago Sun-Times, February 8, 2012.Spike Lee: Oscars Stuck in 1940 Kelly, Christopher, “When It Comes to Race Relations, ‘The Help’ Isn’t Much Help,” ColoradoDaily.com, August 28, 2008. Staples, Brent. 2012. “Black Characters in Search of Reality.” New York Times, February 11.Black Characters in Search of Reality Turner, Patricia A., “Dangerous White Stereotypes,” New York Times, August 28, 2011.Dangerous White Stereotypes