New Film 'The Help' Whitewashes the Civil Rights Struggle into a Heartstring-tugging Hallmark Card
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A statement from the Association of Black Women Historians further details this whitewashing:
Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. For centuries, black women and men have drawn strength from their community institutions. The black family, in particular provided support and the validation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood.
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 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.
Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP, gets some attention. However, Evers’ assassination sends Jackson’s black community frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos and disorganized confusion—a far cry from the courage demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.
Tone-deaf white liberalism is at the heart of this film—the concept that some white liberals want everything to be okay and everything to be equal (up to a point), but don’t want to deal with the “icky” parts that go along with getting there in a fundamentally unjust society. It’s a reflection of white privilege, of course—that a book such as The Help could be so well received and its filmic counterpart so dunderheaded and feel-good, as if it were just another romantic comedy with a cheery outcome.
So with all the historical whitewashing, why does this type of film continue to exist? EW’s Martha Southgate puts it most succinctly:
Suffice it to say that these stories are more likely to get the green light and to have more popular appeal (and often acclaim) if they have white characters up front. That's a shame. The continued impulse to reduce the black women and men of the civil rights movement to bit players in the most extraordinary step toward justice that this nation has ever known is infuriating, to say the least. Minny and Aibileen are heroines, but they didn't need Skeeter to guide them to the light. They fought their way out of the darkness on their own — and they brought the nation with them.
On the off chance that you simply enjoy feel-good movies, might I recommend The Great Debaters, which dealt with Civil Rights in a more realistic way? And as for historical accuracy, Harris-Perry tweeted several books that would right The Help’s wrongs, including Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America. While it's always excellent to see a cast of talented black women getting starring roles in top films, let's start demanding that Hollywood give them better, more accurate, less white-tethered roles to play.