The Help, a film review by Courtney Cureton
The Help is a famous novel turned Oscar-winning movie about the lives of black female domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi, at the turn of the Jim Crow Era.
We follow the lives of two domestic workers, Aibileen Clark (played by Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer). As the seasons change, young Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan graduates from college and moves back for the summer, a progressive journalist looking to tell stories. In this case, to tell stories from unheard voices and to cast a new perspective on the revolution of not only the Jim Crow era but the black perspective in Jackson, Mississippi.
After much hesitation and careful thought, Aibileen accepts Skeeters’ offer to be interviewed and describes her own experiences as The Help. As racial tensions arise in the city of Jackson, the employers of the domestic workers implement Jim Crow segregation laws on their home, including a coloreds only bathroom. The addition of the coloreds only bathroom seems to be the tipping straw for Minny, and she soon joins in and gives her own experiences as a domestic worker. Soon after, many other workers open up and tell their stories to Skeeter.
As time goes on, employers of domestic workers get suspicious of their whereabouts and of Skeeters’ intentions of speaking with their Help. While Skeeter eventually finishes her book, the consequences are grave for many of the domestic workers, including jail time for some, and loss of employment for others.
There are both positive and negative portrayals for the advancement of black history in the film version of The Help.
Some of the positives involved in the film version include the representation of Black women’s voices and the intersectional lens. The main characters of this film include those primarily living in a low-income area with a constant fear of terror from their white counterparts, and those impacted by the intersections of race, class, and gender power structures. As these intersections are rare in Hollywood, the film sheds new light and adds diversity to Hollywood and entertain new audiences. With its inclusive nature of low-income domestic workers at the forefront, audiences can take a step back and analyze the world through a different lens.
Another strength is the overarching portrayal of the black community in the time of Jim Crow, which has ties to what we learned in class, specifically including the emphasis on the black church. As we learned in class and through Freedom in our Mind, the black church gives way to the black power movement and the civil rights movement. As seen in the movie and during the civil rights era, gospels such as We Shall Overcome. The black church is a tight-knit community where families help each other and care for each other, implementing the importance of educating younger generations about the history of oppression and the ways to live and survive in a white supremacist society, especially during the Jim Crow Era.
While there were many positives, many negative portrayals in this movie highlighted the oppressed overtone of racial power structures in America and Hollywood:
White Woman’s Savior: In many black historical movies, the purpose of a white savior is to save the day and defend the minority characters. As seen in movies such as The Blind Side, with the white family helping and taking in a homeless black boy, or in Hidden Figures, with a critical white male authority figure tearing down the “coloreds only” bathroom sign, The Help seems to be no different. While it is not as glaring, due to the alignment of philosophical values from Skeeter, and her progressive tendencies, it does bring to light how Hollywood implements the classic trope of a white savior throughout black Hollywood films. The trope’s broader meaning stems from the racial power dynamics in America. As shown with the Help of Skeeter, allowing the domestic workers to share their experience, it would not have been done without a white woman’s Help and trailblazing through defiance of the racial struggles in Jackson, Mississippi.
As Malcolm X and many others during the Black Power Movement voiced, while allies in the white community are appreciated, at some point, it can do more harm than good, and reiterate the racial power dynamics of whites as superior and blacks inferior. As heard from Malcolm X himself in his ‘Ballot or the Bullet’ speech: “The political philosophy of black nationalism only means that the black man should control the politics and the politicians in his community. The time when white people can come in our community and get us to vote for them so that they can be our political leaders and tell us what to do and what not to do is long gone” (Americanradioworks). As addressed by Malcolm X in his pivotal Black Nationalism speech, the best way to help better the black community started staying inside the community and supporting each other. As in the case with The Help, both Aibileen and Minny are apprehensive about working with Skeeter, due to the dangers of getting caught and to their solidarity with other community members supporting black nationalism and the self-help philosophies illustrated through black nationalism. We can see this trope throughout the film, and in many cases, Aibileen, an older black woman, was told by collegiate Skeeter to stop calling her “Ma’am” to try to shed the power dynamics from their budding friendship.
As well as instances such as this, the main plot of the film, telling black domestic workers stories, only came through Skeeter, as a white woman in contact with a national journalism source. Therefore, the dynamics of the black people depended on their white female counterparts as the only way to get their voices heard and their stories out and across America.
Another weakness of The Help stemmed from their stereotypes of black women:
Mammy: “The Mammy stereotype developed as an offensive racial caricature constructed during slavery and popularized primarily through minstrel shows. Enslaved black women were highly skilled domestic works, working in the homes of white families and caretakers for their children. The trope painted a picture of a domestic worker who had undying loyalty to their slaveholders, as caregivers and counsel (NMAAHC)”. Stereotyped women who may have similar characteristics of mammies, just like Aibileen in The Help, are exploited and underpaid for all of their work.
The Help portrayed Aibileen Clark as the perfect stereotypical “mammy”. Widowed and heartbroken after the manslaughter of her son, she was portrayed as compliant, complimentary, and cordial to her white counterparts and their friends. These negatives behind this stereotype tell more about the alignment with slavery and the notion that domestic workers were grateful and happy with their arrangement, which could no farther away from the truth. As seen numerous times throughout the film, Aibileen breaks down and looks to god for a better life for her and the community.
Sassy Black Woman with an Attitude: This stereotype is less ancient than the mammy stereotype, it is up and coming from a newer generation and still has a noticeable impact on the Black community today. Minny Jackson, fit this black stereotype perfectly. The character involved in arguably the most famous scene in the film, “Eat my Sh**,” Minny proved the downfalls of this stereotype, and the cost of being a defiant domestic worker, it cost Minny her job.
The inaccuracies of this stereotype loom large in many heads, especially those critiquing the movie for historical inaccuracies, such as myself. Along with the inaccuracies of a defiant, sassy domestic worker, we only saw the tip of the iceberg when it came to the white backlash. Yes, she lost her job, but the film neglected to show the audience the domestic violence and harassment from the white employers, and how that was commonplace at the time.
Through analysis of the intersections between black women and domestic violence, some patterns stem from when black women were still enslaved. As mentioned in the article Rape and the Inner Lives of the Middle West, “Rape has always involved patriarchal notions of women being, at best, not entirely unwilling accomplices, if not outwardly inviting a sexual attack. The links between black women and illicit sexuality consolidated during the antebellum years had powerful ideological consequences for the next hundred and fifty years” (Hine). As mentioned in the article, Rape is not uncommon for black women. By failing to show a more realistic picture of these domestic black workers’ lives, the film fails to provide an accurate depiction of black history and change the story to be more lighthearted than honest.
In addition to my initial response to the portrayal of this stereotype in The Help, I gained a greater understanding of the social implications of this stereotype through an open statement from the association of Black Women Historians. They have an overwhelming interest in portrayals like this because they help create a more extensive and warped narrative of black women. In the statement, they write: “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 the 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 (AALBC)”. The open statement helped my understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of a black “historical” movie in Hollywood, even though the pressures of oppression faced on these domestic workers were overwhelming, the movie neglects to address impacts on these women, only through witty responses. Could this be due to the uncomfortable acknowledgment from the white audience of their own doing in this oppression?
What is the purpose? Why write the movie in this way?
The Help is tailored to all audiences; the film keeps the white audience in their seats by downplaying or distorting some of the power relationships that the domestic workers had with their white counterparts. Yes, we should reiterate that the book and the film adaptation is strictly fiction, but the voices and the lives of the women and domestic workers they portrayed are as real as ever. By neglecting to address their truthful histories, we are painting a broader picture more fitting from the white man’s perspective than of the intersectional view of those who dealt with those circumstances as reality.
American Public Media. “American RadioWorks – Say It Plain, Say It Loud.” APM Reports – Investigations and Documentaries from American Public Media, americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/mx.html.
Hine, Darlene Clark. “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 14, no. 4, 1989, pp. 912–920., doi:10.1086/494552.
“An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help.” An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help by Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), aalbc.com/reviews/the_help_historical_context.html.
“Popular and Pervasive Stereotypes of African Americans.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 19 July 2019, nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/popular-and-pervasive-stereotypes-african-americans.