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?

101 Comments

  1. To add insult to injury, the lawsuit filed by the real life Abilene against the author of “The Help” for the use of her likeness in the movie has been thrown out. She was only asking for $75,000. Any writer with a hint of sense knows that you always change names.
    Abilene is a rare and unique name, and she was the housekeeper for the filmmaker’s family, who was a childhood friend of the author- who admits to meeting the real life Abilene once or twice during childhood. The author will make millions from both the film and the book, yet she can’t fathom paying $75,000 for the unlawful use of someone’s image.

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    • Rare and unique are mutually exclusive. Abilene is neither.

      Furthermore, the name of the maid is AIBILENE. An important distinction for copywriting. Also, this is a work of fiction, inspired by the author’s own childhood as she was raised by an African-american woman due to an absentee mother.

      The case was thrown out because it was found to have no basis. The Abilene in question, was the name of the author’s brother’s maid, and she had only met her briefly. She might have been inspired by the name, and that is likely the reason for the lawsuit. Someone got into the woman’s ear about a pay day when the book became successful. That sounds about as frivolous of a lawsuit as any. “You used my name, so you stole my life story.”

      As to this article, it’s almost embarrassingly myopic. How on Earth could a woman be expected to include all travesties occurred to the subject matter in a work of fiction. That is her RIGHT as an author, to present her story and her vision, factual or fictional. It is your right to dislike the story,but one would hope you’d do so without resorting to hate and scare tactics, such as those the protagonist of the book would employ.

      I can’t help but feel Dr. Jones comes off as a bit like Hilly Holbrook herself. Perhaps her real disdain for this novel, is that it was written by a caucasian woman?

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  2. .....

    The darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore. And yet we imagine that the future will somehow be different.

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  3. Sandra

    I just saw the movie and I quite enjoyed it. I wasn’t looking at it from the perspective of one who wishes to preserve black history. Although I appreciate the point of view that announces “we will never forget”, I believe that to pass on the pain from the past is what keeps people angry. The anger that I felt stemmed from seeing people treating other people as “less than” or non-human. It was unacceptable then – it is unacceptable now, and yet it still happens around the world and even here in our so-called developed countries. I am a white Canadian woman – I can’t claim to understand the anger that black people carry due to past exploitation or prejudices that still exist. Aboriginal people continue to be scarred by the wrongs inflicted on them and suffer similar prejudices in modern day society. Women continue to be raped, murdered, and enslaved world-wide, and I don’t have to watch a movie about it to know that it’s happening. When I watch a movie on a Sunday night, I want to feel good. I want to be reminded that we can all choose the kind of person we want to be, regardless of how other people treat us. When I want to feel bad, or be reminded of the evil that exists in some hearts – I only have to pick up a newspaper. The book was written as a novel – not as a history book, and I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty about liking it.

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  4. Randy

    I watched the movie and loved it. Having experienced first hand the segregational divide that existed in the deep south during the 60’s, it is difficult for me to understand how the author of this article would allow focus on the minor inaccuracies in the movie reather than acknoledging that the storyline contained the most accurate depiction of that era in Southern history. When sitting through the movie, I felt emotions with power that I have seldom felt since that time in American history.

    It seems like academics always want to microanalyze things to the point that they seem to entirely miss the message. While not a perfect depiction, The Help did a good overall job of allowing the world to see the overwhelming difficulties that african americans had to endure in the South during those times and how the white aristrocrat did their best to keep us empoverished and dependent upon them. That story was told.

    It is hard to put much stock in the comments of a writer who criticises the “factual accuracy” about a movie yet never lived in the South during that challenging time. This article is filled with all types of criticisms concerning omitted events that Dr. Jones undoubtedly read about while engaging in her studies in Maryland. There are thousands of us whose research in this area was conducted by living through those conditions and being involved in the social changes that followed. The friends of mine who have seen the movie all felt better after watching it. It’s difficult to see how a movie can be embraced by the very people it was written to portray and silmultaneously receive overwhelming criticism from an “african american history scholar” who derived all of her knowlege about the subject from history books.

    I would encourage Dr. Jones to travel to Mississippi and spend some time there. Then, maybe she can see that, even though it didn’t contain all of the important events outlined in her textbooks, the depiction of the relationships and the racial divide in The Help was spot on.

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    • Well let’s face it, Randy. As ugly as it may be to say — Dr. Jones sending an open letter praising the Help as an entertaining work of fiction, and a well-acted film, doesn’t quite ramp as much interest for her cause.

      Take an organization such as PETA that ridiculously attacked a video game that depicted a cartoonish character dressing in a squirrel suit. Are they really as outraged as they sound? No, but they get their name in the press, and they do it well.

      Dr. Jones is simply doing her job to try to keep the coffers of the ABWH lined. And if she has to sell a little of her self-respect for a worthy cause, so be it.

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  5. 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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