Bayard Rustin (l) and Cleveland Robinson (r), organizers of the March, on August 7, 1963

I am one of those strong black women who liked the movie The Help.  True, the stereotypes are there, obvious and certainly can be considered offensive.   But it is unfair to hold a work of fiction to the same standards one would judge a documentary.

I agree, in part, with Dr. Patricia Turner’s NYT’s op-ed piece (Dangerous White Stereotypes)  that young people today learn more from “fictive rather than non-fictive sources” is a sad commentary on history in general and African American history specifically. Even so, raging against the entertainment machine by expecting it to get everything right will not solve the problem of white folks trying to tell history from the black point of view. Money, expediency along with the desire to entertain are the coins of the movie industry realm.

The movie’s  director, Tate Taylor, managed successfully to maintain the integrity of The Help’s larger message. It is a message issued through the relationship between black domestics and the southern upper middle-class whites who employ them. The message of domestic work as an acceptable 20th Century form of slavery is writ large in every scene.  Dr. Turner discusses the standard formula that The Help employs and suggests that all the white women of the film (with the exception of one) are unlikable. I disagree. Celia is an innocent, seemingly impervious the “rules”  pertaining to how to treat those considered inferior. Celia wants to be part of the in-crowd on her own terms. Her  inability to gain entrance into Hilly’s circle puts her in the margins with the help where she begins to see the Hilly’s group for what it really is. Celia is unpretentious and quite admirable in her treatment of Minnie. I liked Celia’s message and by the end it is her character who clearly wins; the man, Minny’s respect and above all, integrity.  Celia is the character that challenges Dr. Turner’s belief that this movie advances the troubling falsehood of educated, Christian whites being victimized by southern  “white trash.” That Celia’s character, considered white trash by Hilly’s group,  advances the fact that racism is not the brain-child of “white trash” thinking. It is a system that was endorsed by the educated, good men of the  U.S. Supreme court when they ruled in the  Plessy Vs. Ferguson case upholding  “separate but equal” facilities as constitutional. This case represents just one example of acceptable institutionalized racism. I question the notion that there are people who don’t know the roots of racism. It certainly isn’t the poor whites involved – although there were many to pick up that ugly banner and carry it proudly. 

The Help deals with a racism that transcends the concept of mere good and bad. The reason To Kill a Mockingbird  remains popular with audiences today is the character of Atticus Finch; every decent person wants to do the right thing; that they lack the courage of Atticus or Skeeter does not make them bad – just human. Elizabeth Leefolt  is not a bad person just human in her misguided attempts to parent her unattractive child and her lack of backbone to stand up to Hilly – the movie’s appalling antagonist.

That the racist Hilly is the brunt of the “terrible awful” joke provides a bit of humorous justice. But, even this does nothing to prevent the wincing at the stereotypical Minnie character – the big black, wise-cracking woman who has every right to be angry and stay angry. Also, Minny’s abuse by her husband rang false as we were not even given the opportunity to witness any bits of humanity within such a husband.  We witnessed a redemption of sorts with Skeeter’s mom’s coming to grips with her own bias and Skeeter’s ostensibly decent boyfriend who is so without courage that he cannot appreciate it when he sees it in someone he professes to love. Yet we are left to accept the stock wife-beater character with the name of, wait, wait, don’t tell me – Leroy.

I find it interesting that few seemed put-off by the cavalier response of the New York editor Ms. Stein (Mary Steenbergen) who thought a story on black domestics might work at least before the civil-rights mess blew over. Again, domestics and their story (on both sides of the Mason/Dixon Line) came down to neither good or bad, right or wrong but the good old bottom line.

A big caveat for me was the changing  of the real reason (Stockett’s  version) behind Constantine’s disappearance and the jarring idea of a black man and woman having a very, very light skinned child? Here was a teachable moment that could have provided more insight into the tangled web of human nature. But no, the movie viewer got the stereotype of the northern raised, sassy-mouthed, black woman who was not trucking with any racist southern tradition. With the Daughters of the American Revolution group as foil – this scene could have produced a more meaningful “terrible awful.” But again, The Help is not a documentary.   What the story does is offer balance in the character of Aibileen Clark who, like many domestics, is forced to hide a superior intellect while cleaning up the mess of others and still somehow managing a tremendous quiet strength and integrity.

Growth is difficult and I saw the ‘good’ white people of Jackson, Mississippi clinging to the good-old-days not because they were victims of those who they considered “white trash” but because having someone to clean up behind them was easier – much easier. I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’s narrative in which he makes a salient observation regarding his owner’s wife, the kindly Mrs. Auld who, initially, taught him the rudiments of reading and writing until being informed by her husband of the perils of teaching a slave to read. Once Mrs. Auld was put on the “right” path of considering another human as chattel, a young Douglass observed, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.”  From this I came to understand that while slavery and the racism it spawned battered the bodies and minds of those enslaved it also killed the soul of the enslaver.

I understand too that we are all on this sliding scale of victimhood as we move towards a better understanding of all the permutations of human nature.

Promises from my garden

1 Comment

  1. Gwen, I completely agree. The book and the film fall short of really making the reader/viewer see that although slavery was no longer legal at that point, blacks were still considered property. In reality, the white women (and their children) were also considred property or man-toys as well. There was no equality back then.
    One would think that this ‘treatment as chattel’ would have bound the white women and their maids together in the form of a sisterhood—but instead the Stepford women turned around and treated their maids AND children as things…..the behavior of the ‘things’ (the maids and the children) helped to define the position of the white women in the community. But no matter what, there was no way to rise above what they were….women.
    I agree with your description of Atticus Finch; the personification of truly ethical and noble character.

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