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?

  • DGP

    I do not agree with this statement, at all. It assumes that audiences are ignorant to the reality of racial and sexual injustice in America. WE KNOW! WE KNOW! Our great grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers…they told us. Now, can we just go see the movie and support our sisters, both Black and White. A resurrection of “Mammy?” Please stop…and pass the popcorn.

  • whyaskquestions

    I thought this letter was eloquent and spot on. I wish people would stop making excuses for these types of films and works. Yes, okay, it is just a movie but please don’t deny the impact films have. And don’t deny that though this is fiction it still attempts to recreate history. Glossing over certain issues and distorting realities is disrespectful to the people who lived through the atrocities of this era and disrespectful to the people now that are forced to constantly tangle with a society that denies realities of the past and present.

  • S.

    Dear Jesus,

    Please forgive the fans of The Help, for they know not what they do…

  • http://twitter.com/crperry84 Clayton Perry

    The ABWH notes that “[up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes." If this is the case, then why not condemn the fact that it has taken decades to get a depiction of the black, Southern, female experience on-screen? I'm just at a loss of words. The attack seems to target the wrong people: Kathryn Stockett, Tate Taylor and the cast of "The Help."

    Also, why is the film being labeled a "feel-good" story? Even though Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter are friends, they know the present world will not accept their friendship. (This is why Aibileen and Minny tell Skeeter to leave Jackson, since she has no future in Jackson due to her book's publication.) During the end credits, Aibileen walks off into the sunset - after being fired from her first job, an emotional departure from her "baby" Mae, a threat of being reported to the police, no sure plans for the future and an empty home to lay her head.

    As far as the concerns cited:

    "...silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi?" (I can't remember the last time Hollywood even made mention of Medgar Evers, let alone the White Citizens Council.)

    "...most of the black ma...le characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent?" (The men depicted on-screen were far from sloths! Aibileen's son was hard-working, yet killed at work. And finances willing, Yule Mae's two sons are college-bound.)

    "...[no] depictions of sexual harassment? “(Hilly started the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, because she believe diseased would be spread BY the help INTO the household.)

    “…a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it?” (Did we read the same book, or watch the same film? The maids hoped for better, their situation dictated otherwise. Yule Mae was CRUSHED when Hilly did not grant her “loan” request, which ultimately led to her arrest. Minny constantly gave her employers have a piece of her mind. Why else would she have had 19 jobs – and such difficulty keeping work?)

  • S.

    You know, sometimes I think some Black women will say anything to justify white people showing them a little bit of attention…

    No one is stopping you from watching this movie!

    If you want to see it then go right ahead but why protest against intelligent Black women who are trying to educated the ignorant masses of the REALITIES of Black maids of past in the face of the popularity of a FICTIONAL story that dangerously strips this critical era in Black history from all seriousness and minimizes it to being an vehicle for the white protagonists character growth???

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