This week, the film The Help opened to critical acclaim. The film, which is based on a novel by the same name, takes a look at the relationship (or lack there of) between affluent White families and their Black housekeepers. Set in the 1960s in Mississippi, many have had varying reactions to the film. Some have hailed it as a beautiful story of friendship and claiming your own voice, while others assert it exploits Black domestic workers and offers a skewed version of the truth.

Recently, Ida E. Jones, the National Director of the Association of Black Women Historians penned an open letter hoping to add a bit of historical context to The Help. Her letter is not only eye-opening, but adds even more depth to the issues tackled in the film.

Read Ida E. Jones’ open letter about The Help.

An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help:

On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help.   The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism. 

During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women’s employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.

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.

We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.

 

Did you see ‘The Help’? What do you think of Dr. Jones’ open letter?

  • Heather

    I think this article provides a very important and informative viewpoint on “The Help”, and the issues the book/film raises.

    I watched the film last night (6 well-educated white females) and I think we all really enjoyed it. I hold a BA in American History, and although this degree is not needed to miss the discrepanices present in “The Help”, I do think, for me, it was helpful.

    As I said, I enjoyed the movie a lot, however, there is much missing. Perhaps if I were a black female, I would not have enjoyed the movie, or not have enjoyed the movie as much.

    The first thing that struck me as “off” about the film is the lack of fear the “help” (the black, domestic workers) seemed to feel in the film. What they did was very dangerous and I cannot imagine what the consequences would truly have been had they been found out. The Jim Crow South was a violent, volatile, often dangerous place; these domestics would have been putting their lives at stake in sharing their stories. The KKK, as well as other racist organizations, were not once addressed during the entirety of the film. I did find the black comic relief refreshing as I am sure this kind of humor did exist, and I’m sure it provided a much-needed outlet for the frustrations of these women. And most likely also served as a strong, binding force between them.

    The film, as the writer states, also ignores the brutal harrassment suffered by many black domestics at this time at the hands of their white, male employers. The reader/viewer did not see the terrorism many of these women were truly exposed to.

    I cannot say I understand the comment about contemporary nostalgia. Perhaps the author is referring to the lack of reality portrayed in the book/fim that makes the Jim Crow South appear less threatening than it truly was. I know living in such a time and place as depicted in “The Help” does not appeal to me. Ialso agree with the comment about the book/film serving as a catalyst for young Skeeter’s career.

    On a final note, I think all of the actors in the film, both black and white, were stellar and gave wonderful performances, not just the black women. I think that Sissy Spacek, in particular, was hugely entertaining, and Bryce Dallas Howard also gave a stunning performance.

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