New Film 'The Help' Whitewashes the Civil Rights Struggle into a Heartstring-tugging Hallmark Card
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This week, disgusted by The Help’s revisionist history, scholar and pundit Melissa Harris Perry began livetweeting the film halfway through it. This one summed it up best: “I just timed it. Miss Skeeter's date got same amount of screen time as Medgar Evers assassination. #TheHelpMovie sigh.”
Hollywood’s compulsion for feel-good movies is annoying at best, but when applied to storylines that are ostensibly historical—particularly when they involve issues that people still don’t seem to understand—they can be toxic. In The Help’s case, the history of civil rights in the virulently racist Southern town of Jackson, Mississippi, is neatly packaged into a heartstring-tugging Hallmark card, set to a rousing Mary J. Blige soundtrack, and completely trivializes the suffering and hard work that went into making civil rights a reality. It also infers, perhaps inadvertently, that after the ‘60s everything was fine and dandy for non-whites in America, not to mention domestic workers. As the Nation points out, the civil right struggle in Mississippi is still having to hang tough:
In the past few years, Mississippi activists’ formula of visible black and immigrant partnership, within a “workers’ rights/civil rights” frame, abetted by dogged labor organizing, has added up to visible success.
There’s no coincidence civil rights and workers rights groups are more successful when they band together—working class labor is more likely to be done by Latinos and other non-white groups. In particular, domestic workers are still among the last to receive basic rights such as sick leave, vacation pay and overtime. In New York, these were granted to domestic workers just last year. In June 2011, an international coalition for domestic workers was successful among a broad coalition at the Geneva Convention, ensuring basic rights and protection for laborers around the world, but the United States still leaves it up to states to decide how domestic workers will be treated, and is not likely to ratify it.
Thanks to The Help’s sugarcoating, the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance has been compelled to release a video discussing the truth of the country’s maids, nannies and chauffeurs. As Colorlines notes, “The 2.5 million women who keep contemporary families going by cleaning their homes while looking after the young, the old and the infirm are still not covered by a large number of labor laws. Congress initially excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers from the Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Acts specifically to keep 'the help' under the thumbs of their employers. These workers were incorporated into some aspects of labor law over time - that kind of discrimination being, well, illegal — but they still suffer from an almost-total lack of enforcement.”
Back to the movie, The Help. Based on Kathryn Stockton’s best-selling novel, it follows Skeeter, an idealistic, plucky young white journalist who was raised by a black nanny, and her interactions with similar black domestic workers Aibileen and Minny (which are played by the great actors Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, but whose characters’ essential Mammy-ness cannot be overlooked). She interviews Aibileen and Minny after much persuading, detailing the travails of their daily lives in a book. After tears, laughter and hugs, mutual understanding and racial harmony ensues.
There’s a lot written about the “magical negro”—the sagely black character in films who exists only to enlighten the white main character, and then go away. But its inverse is the scourge of the “magical cracker”—the white protagonist who becomes a vessel for a film’s disempowered characters, and therefore becomes the hero of the story, trivializing their actual struggle. The Help is a classic example of “magical cracker”—Skeeter is the only way in which poor disempowered maid Aiblieen can tell her story, to recognize that she is worthy of a voice. Skeeter writes a book about the maids of Jackson, therefore as Harris-Perry put it in a tweet, “#TheHelpMovie reduces systematic, violent racism, sexism & labor exploitation to a cat fight that can be won w/ cunning spunk.” When the super-sassy Minny talks back, she is simply reprimanded or let go—obscuring the fact that such petulant behavior toward whites by blacks in the Jim Crow South was often met with violence and murder.
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.