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?



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  • CJ

    This is just ridiculous. The movie is historical fiction, plain and simple. GET OVER IT. It is a sweet and enjoyable movie. How many other movies are out there that portray various groups of white people inaccurately and in a bad light? So STFU and stop perpetuating racism, which I’m convinced wouldn’t widely exist anymore if minorities would just stop bringing it up at the drop of a hat.

    • feri

      *sigh*

      1) The author never claimed the movie was racist.

      2) Historical fiction is supposed to be believable. The events are supposed to represent a story that could have believably happened during the time period.

      3) The author never said the movie was not “sweet” or “enjoyable”, she was making it clear to audiences that it was not a realistic portrayal of what domestic workers went through in the 60’s but a “coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own”. Which is what it is.

      4) The only one here that is perpetuating racism is you. Blaming minorities for the racism perpetrated by autonomous self thinking individuals because they “bring it up” is a little ridiculous. Thats right along lines blaming rape victims for wearing a short skirt disgusting. And telling people to “STFU” when they even bring the topic up is over the top. If this article makes you that angry maybe you should reevaluate your own attitudes.

    • Dan

      I agree with you CJ. This crap is getting out of hand. Why can’t a movie just be a movie anymore?

    • BeautyIAM

      LOL, I guess the best way to bring out the white liberals who lurk on this site is to call them out on ish like this.

    • Chrissy

      @CJ

      Oh Please. It is easy to tell someone get over something if you never have to experience it.

    • Thereluctantsocialite

      “This is just ridiculous. The movie is historical fiction, plain and simple.”

      Yeah… I think this is the point that people seem to be missing…

      I kind of get the frustration about that movie… but I don’t get how its turning to anger. The story is supposed to be more about women in general than it is about the plight of the domestic help.

  • alyssa j.

    Peep the game. Tariq Nasheed breaks down the purpose of “The Help”

    http://macklessonsradio.com/index/episode-298-fake-white-liberalism-

    • http://cupofjo-jo.blogspot.com bk chick

      Thank you for this link. He is speaking the truth! I don’t see how so many people don’t get it…

    • S.

      Thank you alyssa for this link! He makes some excellent points…

      particularly when he said…

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      “we have a lot of fake white liberalism out here and that has been the problem of black folks. Black folks go for that fake white liberalism every time and it’s GAME.”

      “Because alot of Black folks have such a desire to be accepted by Whites, when you come with that fake white liberalism, black folks eat it up because they feel like it’s a chance for them to be accepted”

      “White folks who constantly help black people like you feed the children or help the disenfranchised, poor inner city school kids, that’s cool, but you gotta look at white folks like that. Certain white folks, when they do that, they do that b/c it’s not challenging their status or their privilege”

      “But you move next door as a Black person, they’ll call the police on yo ass everyday”
      “You try to move next door to them or try to be to equal to them, they have a problem with it”

      “they’ll deal with people of color as long as they are in an inferior position to them”
      “they’ll deal with black folks on their terms, as long as they get to maintain their privilege”

      “See deep down, white folks like to believe that black folks liked working for them”

      “Alot of the HBCU’s were funded by fake white liberals. And if you look into the background of these founders, they were racist as hell. For example, Hampton”

      “Only Black American people would go to schools that were found by people who thought they were inferior”

      “That’s why they’re only slave documentaries”

      “Fake white liberals don’t have a problem with the slave documentaries because as long as black people were slaves, that’s fine b/c it’s not ruining their status. But when you talk about African kingdoms or when you talk about how the Moors where running Europe, then they get quite.They don’t want to talk about that”

      On ‘The Help’…

      “I want black folks to stop allowing people to put you into that slave-submissive bag. Because the thing is movies like The Help–I don’t give a damn how good the book is, i don’t give a damn how good the storyline is…

      Because it could be a damn good story. It could be a great story. I’m not saying that the direction of the movie isn’t great. I’m not saying the acting isn’t great; I’m just talking about the overall message you’re gonna get when you leave the movie.

      Especially as a person of color, movies like that will f*ck with you on a subconscious level because it makes you think it’s cool to be on a submissive inferior position to people. And your kids shouldn’t be watching that because when you look at that movie poster, that movie poster sends a message. You have homely looking Black folks and well-to-do looking white women. And this is why you get little kids and they do that doll test and you tell them to point out the doll that looks the best they point to the white one and you tell them to point out ugly one and they point to the Black one and they’re like 3 or 4 years old. So it’s the conditioning that’s being programed in their minds.This is why you should be cognizance to what’s going on and how they play this game. Because the thing is man, they’ve been playing/showing maid movies for damn near 80 years. It’s not an accident that maid movies with black women always get green-lite in Hollywood. You think that’s accident? And the thing is, again, the storyline can be whatever: it can be a maid with dignity, it can be a maid with courage, it can be a maid with strength, but at the end of the day it’s still a maid!”

      “And also, there’s another movie that Quentin Tarantino is doing about some slaves. So yall see the pattern about all the movies getting green-lite about black folks being maids and slaves, in 2011? Really? That’s not a coincidence, that’s trying to play on your subconscious mind. Movies like that, white supremacy will still be in tact”.

    • Jess

      well thank god for Tareeq Nashis..I knew their had to be SOME Black men who get it! Too bad I can’t say the same for Black women.

      “The Help” = typical white liberal drivel trash.

  • RiddleMeThis

    I’m sorry, but this is such a stupid argument. Chilllllllllll out! Some black people will always make a big deal out of ANYTHING that has to do with race. smh.

    • Annoyed

      Exactly! thank u

    • http://twitter.com/Diva_Magnifique La Diva Negra, J

      So what about the issues of classism at hand? A movie based from a book written by a wealthy woman who exploited the personal tales of real life workers that worked within her and other relatives’ homes to profit without giving any of them, or living relatives, a dime.

      Exploitation at its finest. I hope Miss Cooper wins her suit.

  • http://twitter.com/SheThrives11 E. Wilson

    Interesting letter, but I don’t need permission or advice from the black thought police on which movies I should/ should not see. I’m going to go see “The Help” because I’m a fan of Viola Davis, and I heard she did great in the film.

    • http://clutchmagonline.com/2011/08/an-open-letter-to-the-fans-of-the-help/comment-page-1/?replytocom=142756#respond Mimi

      AGREED!

      sn: Now I feel slightly bad for enjoying it. My racism detector is always on and ready for combat, but sometimes it just takes up too much energy.

    • Jess

      Nobody on here is keeping you from seeing The Help. If you want to ingest garbage, that’s your choice. But we have the right to point out racist drivel when we see it.

  • alyssa j.

    It is 2011 and they are still making movies about black maids?

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