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.