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Why Hate The Help?

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Over the past month, The Help, a movie adapted from a best-selling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett about African-American housekeepers in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, has had a strong showing at the box office. This has created consternation among many who object to the film's politics.

[Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.]

Having recently seen the movie, I'm having a hard time thinking that its success is such a bad thing. Sure, The Help wasn't a masterpiece of civil rights cinema. But I would argue it had some significant redeeming qualities. And I didn't think it was nearly as bad as online discussion among progressives had led me to believe it might be.

Certainly, the story has some problematic aspects. At Entertainment Weekly, novelist Martha Southgate describes as "cringeworthy" the premise of the film: "A young white woman encourages black housekeepers to tell their truth through the vehicle of a book the white woman writes." Southgate found this "both implausible and condescending to those maids."

At Colorlines, Akiba Solomon wrote about why she is " Just Saying No to The Help and Its Historical Whitewash," expressing concern that, by making a well-meaning white woman the central agent for change, the movie replicates many of the bad habits of films like The Blind Side.

I take their point. ( The Blind Side's repellent trailers have been enough to keep me avoiding that movie for two years now.) But, in this case, I don't think the premise ends up being fatal. I agree with David Denby's assessment at the New Yorker that strong performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer overcome some sketchy source material, placing the housekeepers' experiences and their decisions squarely at the center of the story's moral drama.

(I get the sense that the book, which does not benefit from such performances and is written partly in dialect, has been the greater source of ire for critics of The Help.)

I also think that some of the criticisms miss the point. Solomon, noting filmmaker and author Nelson George's piece in the New York Times, argues that viewers are better off watching Eyes on the Prize. Of course, she's right. But people going out for a Friday night show aren't choosing between The Help and a fourteen-hour civil rights documentary. The actual alternatives they are considering are movies like The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Shark Night 3D. In a review at Dissent, Leonard Quart concluded of The Help: "The film eschews realism in its settings and its characters. But in a summer of the usual special effects-ridden blockbusters and forgettable romantic comedies, it's good to see a Hollywood film deal with a significant subject, however adulterated."

Unlike the typical multiplex fare, The Help passes the Bechdel Test. It also contributes to a useful discussion about the ongoing exploitation of domestic workers--a workforce still predominately made up of women of color, and one that (outside of New York state, which passed a landmark Domestic Workers Bill of Rights last year) still receives scant protection under labor law.

For this reason, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) is putting a positive spin on the film. Describing The Help as a "powerful story about courageous domestic workers in the Civil Rights era," the group is using it as an opportunity to highlight their ongoing organizing.

I recently spoke with NDWA Director Ai-jen Poo, who explained:

It's not every day that a major motion picture actually puts the experiences of women of color in general--and particularly of domestic workers--center stage. To me that's a huge opportunity to actually lift up the fact that there's a continuance of these stories. Not much has changed structurally for this workforce. Many of the dynamics and the vulnerabilities and the injustices that the characters deal with are still prevalent today. And there's something we can do about it.

Among other campaigns, the NDWA is currently pushing to pass a version of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in California. (You can learn more by watching the organization's video, "Meet Today's Help," available here.) Whether you're taken by The Help, or you're holding out for Hollywood to create better civil rights movies, domestic workers fighting for labor rights deserve your support.