Film Reviews of The Help

Film Reviews of The Help


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Surely both taste and perspective will inform whether viewers will find The Help a revelatory celebration of interracial healing and transcendence, or a patronizing portrait that trivializes those alliances by reducing them to melodrama and facile uplift. (By way of comparison, the 2008 drama The Secret Life of Bees struck a far more sensitive, observant chord . . .



Film Reviews of The Help

Ahistorical Revisions and Other Rosy Tales

Excerpts Compiled by Rudolph Lewis


My obvious bias against the film has nothing to do with the quality of the script or the enormous talent of the actresses in the film. Rather, it has to do with the fact that I grow sick and weary of seeing yet another Hollywood production that is so quick to grab onto a racial stereotype. Most of these films have the brave white protagonist, who has the courage to (gasp!) treat us like we’re actually human beings. Films such as A Time to Kill and Amistad are perfect cases in point: In the midst of telling a very painful story about the black experience, the film makers always take the time to ensure that the white guy is the hero. So, even when we’ve been self-sufficient, it’s only because a white person has allowed us to do so—even benevolent white supremacy is still white supremacy, nonetheless. . . . A one-dimensional approach African American portrayals simply represents the same tired garbage that we’ve been watching for the past century. I won’t go see The Help, because I have no interest in giving Hollywood a financial incentive to create a sequel to scripts that confine black men and women to being nothing more than trusty sidekicks to their overseers.   But the most important thing to remember is that the first step toward controlling our destiny on-screen is to control our destiny off of it. That means that the financing and ownership of black cinema is an important step in our cultural evolution. But even then, the degradation of the black image on screen may also occur at the hands of a black film maker seeking to fulfill the shallow objective of profit maximization (as Sheila [Johnson] and Bob Johnson once showed us with their ownership of BET). That’s the flaw of thinking like Hattie McDaniel: there is nothing wrong with passing up economic opportunity if you are doing so to protect your integrity—We must always pursue a double bottom line and there are things in life that are far more important than money—Dr. Boyce Watkins, NewsOne

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The thing about the African-American community compared with the white community is, we are more concerned with image and message than execution. I don’t play roles that are necessarily attractive or portray a positive image. They are well-rounded characters. When you squelch excellence to put out a message, it’s like passing the baton and seeing it drop.—Viola Davis, BlackWomenToday

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I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.—Hattie McDaniel, who was also publicly raked for playing “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind and other subservient roles, BlackWomenToday

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Emma Stone Meets Michelle Obama for The Help Screening—Last night, Emma Stone talked to David Letterman about her first visit to the White House when she attended a screening of her new film The Help with First Lady Michelle Obama. Although Emma said it was incredible to meet Mrs. Obama, she was incredibly nervous because she hates watching herself on screen. Unfortunately, she was requested by the first lady to stay through the film, so she couldn’t say no. Watch Emma share the story and tell Letterman what would have made the movie more bearable!—PopSugar

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The Help, based on the popular 2009 book by Kathryn Stockett, portrays a world in which slavery, a century after abolition, lives on in a truncated form under a new name in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Society is white. The help is black. And while the maids do the childrearing and the chores, the two worlds never meet. In fact, they literally don’t see eye to eye. Watch the characters’ faces in this adaptation by writer/director Tate Taylor and you can analyze the entire social structure. Who looks at whom? Who looks back? How hard and for how long? Who looks away first? The rules are intricate, understood, unstated and unbroken. . . . 

The Help doesn’t quite capture the tense tone of the book, and even at more than two hours feels pared down. Tate, a childhood friend of the author, compensates by deftly dropping in bits of background detail. [Octavia A.] Spencer and [Viola] Davis anchor the superb cast, the latter providing occasional voice-over and some zippy lines. “Miss Leefolt should not be having babies,” she declares when asked to describe her boss. “Write that down.”

[Emma] Stone conveys ambition and intelligence but a bit of a blank-slate personality as Skeeter, which should help calm those who complain of whites appropriating African-American stories. (Blacklash?) Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek shine as women who find wisdom late in life and make the most of it. Tate frames each character well, letting us see that all-important gaze. When she starts talking to Aibileen about her book idea, Skeeter’s eyes flash with excitement, but the maid’s are fixed on the sidewalk in front of her. Tellingly, the white woman doesn’t notice.—NationalPost

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Tulane Professor Melissa Harris Perry was one of the skeptics, who watched a screening of the movie today to review for Lawrence O’Donnell and found it so bad she jokingly demanded workers’ compensation for having watched it.

Harris Perry live-tweeted the experience today, making the movie sound nothing short of excruciating for someone who studies race relations for a living, finally concluding that it reduced the suffering of the women of the time to a “cat fight.” She was much calmer on the matter on The Last Word than Twitter, telling O’Donnell that she had gone home to calm down a bit as “it’s really easy to frame an African-American woman feminist talking about a feel-good happy race movie with a critical eye as a killjoy,” and wanted to make clear that the acting and immediate story was entertaining. It was the periphery of that story that Harris Perry took issue with, arguing that “the African American domestic workers become props” for the white protagonist, and that it reduced the struggles of laborers in the South to light Hollywood fare.

“This is not a movie about the lives of black women,” she clarified, as their lives were not, she argued, “Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi . . . it was rape, it was lynching, it was the burning of communities.” She then explained that it was, to her, completing the work started by the Daughters of the American Confederacy when they “found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue of Mammy in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial,” which happened while the same Senate contingency failed to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. . . .  It is the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives, the pain, the anguish, the rape that they experienced. . . .

“It’s ahistorical and deeply troubling,” she argued, to make the suffering of these laborers a backdrop for a happy story. But there was a silver lining to the film, and Harris Perry concluded on a good note: actress Viola Davis’s buzz was well-earned. “What kills me,” she concluded, “is that in 2011 Viola Davis is reduced to playing a maid.”—Mediaite

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Chocolate Breast Milk: A Review of The Help—There already is Oscar buzz surrounding Viola Davis for her depiction of Aibileen. But I can’t help feeling extremely disappointed in Davis and the other Black women who agreed to act in this film. These are Black women who are plenty old enough to know the history of their foremothers but who either didn’t notice what was wrong in the script, or didn’t speak up—if they had, this would have been a different movie, despite the issues with the book.

And how many Black women who are defending this movie don’t see the serious flaws, either, the glaring historical and emotional anachronisms throughout? Instead, they are bending over backwards to try to understand a continuing legacy of White southern paternalism. At the very beginning of The Help, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) poses the question to Aibileen, “How did you feel, leaving your own child while you took care of other people’s children?” That question is never answered.

Aibileen’s son’s life isn’t explored, even in flashback; she only talks briefly about the horrible way in which he died.  We only see his picture. It is as if his only contribution to the movie is to provide motivation for Aibileen’s later actions, after he’s dead.

Her mother’s love, her mother’s grief, is condensed into 2 or 3 minutes. And in reality, she doesn’t claim her own voice—as a mother, as a woman, or someone who has her own inner mystery. She has no voice unless someone White is in the room. Much has been made of Viola Davis’s acting skills, that in this one early scene the weighted absence of her silence somehow says it all. And it does, but not to answer the question posed to her; rather, it says something about the novelist who wrote this book and Tate Taylor, the writer who wrote the screenplay. They just didn’t get it.

Nobody’s calling them racists—at least I’m not—or mean-spirited, or out to bring down The Black Community With A Big C. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t get anything about the real Black women who lived in Mississippi in 1963, those women who endured and resisted without “help” and worked in White folks’ kitchens and raised and loved Black children and hoped those children could avoid the lynch mobs to push the next generation to something better.

That story would have been a tougher one to tell–and a tougher one to swallow for a moviegoer who craved the Jim Crow Cliffs Notes; it probably wouldn’t have been funny, but neither was Mississippi in 1963.  But not only did Stockett and Taylor not get those Mississippi Sisters, they didn’t even get the universal human condition. And that’s just a colorblind shame.—PhillisRemastered   Africa My Motherland (Not)  and  Tell Me How Long Has the Essence Train Been Gone?  by  Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

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Black leaders give ‘The Help’ a hand in marketing—When Roslyn Brock, chairwoman of the NAACP, first heard about The Help, a new film based on a novel about the volatile relationships between Southern white women and their black maids at the dawn of the civil rights movement, she was skeptical. “I didn’t have any great expectations for a movie based in the ’60s about domestics,” Brock said. “I thought it would be a heavy, dark movie that would bring to mind segregation.” After seeing the film, though, “I felt so proud,” she said. “My grandmother was a domestic in Florida, and when she passed, almost two generations of families whom she had taken care of sent condolences saying what an important part she was to their family. And it never really connected with me until I saw this movie.” Last week, during the annual convention in Los Angeles of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Brook took to the stage after a screening of the film with an impassioned plea: “I ask each of you: Tell your friends, your family, your co-workers, your church. Organize screening parties. Go see this movie.”—LATimes

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“Sorry, but Medgar Evers was not a fictional character. And yet Skeeter states that he was “bludgeoned” on Page 277. Never happened. It’s this type of sloppy research, as well as the defamation of the black male while elevating the white males who benefited from the cheap labor under segregation that makes this book an epic fail.

The trailer has everyone laughing and hugging and joking. Yet black women were routinely assaulted and raped during this period, while black men were lynched, run out of town, jailed or joined the great migration to the north. The movie makes a mockery of the oppression blacks endured during this period by trying to make Jackson into Mayberry. The book even separates the black characters based on color. Yule May, Gretchen and Lulabelle all speak darn near perfect English because they’ve got white characteristics in the book. Yet the maids/mamm­ies in the novel who demolish the English language are all heavy set, and dark.

It’s also interesting that the closer to white black maids are the only ones who act “uppity” Yule May Crookle (that’s right, her last name is Crookle, an unfunny play on names) steals from Hilly, Gretchen tells off Skeeter and calls Aibileen stupid, and Lulabelle dares to pass for white during Charlotte Phelan’s DAR meeting. Yet in the novel, Aibileen, Minny and Constantin­e, coddle and nurture their respective white charges Stockett sticks them with like good little Mammies.”—Onyx M, HuffingtonPost

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Black Women Historians Blast The Help—By Members of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH)—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.—ABWH

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Black-and-White Struggle With a Rosy Glow—In the film adaptation the director-writer Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Ms. Stockett’s, adopts a clever strategy. The film opens and closes with voice-over narration by Viola Davis’s Aibileen, and her voice is interspersed throughout the film. But the narrative is driven by Skeeter’s journey from oddball college graduate to rebellious neo-liberal muckraker, action that happens in the book but is given more prominence in the stripped-down screenplay structure. Minny, played with great wit by Octavia Spencer, is still a huge part of the film, but her narrative voice is sublimated to Aibileen’s and Skeeter’s, which may simply be the difference between a sprawling novel and a Hollywood feature.

A larger problem for anyone interested in the true social drama of the era is that the film’s candy-coated cinematography and anachronistic super-skinny Southern belles are part of a strategy that buffers viewers from the era’s violence. The maids who tell Skeeter their stories speak of the risks they are taking, but the sense of physical danger that hovered over the civil rights movement is mostly absent.

Medgar Evers is murdered in Jackson during the course of the story, but it is more a TV event, very much like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, than a felt tragedy. The only physical violence inflicted on any of the central characters is a beating Minny endures at the hands of a heard, but unseen, husband. At its core the film is a small domestic drama that sketches in the society surrounding its characters but avoids looking into the shadows just outside the frame. 

That’s not to say there haven’t been successful attempts to translate the tumultuous era—roughly 1954 to the early ’70s—into coherent narratives. It is just that almost none of them have been fictional, whether made in Hollywood or through independent financing. Over all, with Eyes on the Prize as the benchmark, documentaries have provided far superior cinematic experiences.

The first-person testimony that makes Eyes so riveting also animates other successful documentaries on the subject: works otherwise as stylistically different as Spike Lee’s exploration of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, Four Little Girls; Stanley Nelson’s celebration of the 1961 Freedom Riders; and the eclectic Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, scheduled for release on Sept. 9, a jumpy compilation of clips from Swedish television about the movement.

The stoicism and vigor of these interviewees, often first viewed as young people in vintage Super-8 or 16-millimeter film, and then as elders in contemporary digital formats, create a dialogue between the inspired, committed youth they were and the wizened, wistful, sometimes disappointed middle-aged folks they became, discourses that no fiction has yet matched for their poignant intensity.

While documentaries easily shift perspective, moving from one witness to the next, the scope of the movement has, so far, thwarted most fictional storytellers. The success of the civil rights movement so altered daily life that some filmmakers, like blind men with the proverbial elephant, grab onto a tail or trunk.

In a screenplay that somewhat anticipates The Help, The Long Walk Home follows the relationship between a maid-nanny and her employer during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott in a well-intentioned but rather toothless metaphor for racial conciliation. Taking on the incipient black capitalism of the late ’60s and early ’70s through the life of the brash Washington D.J. Petey Greene was Talk to Me, a fresh take on the era that suffered from some jumbled plotting. This micro approach is certainly artistically valid, though it has yet to yield the intimacy with history the filmmakers intend.

    photo left (foreground); James Foreman and Martin Luther King

Which bring us back to point of view. Do the filmmakers put us inside the head of the black woman braving a gantlet of jeering whites to integrate a segregated school? Do we understand the strain on a white diner owner who finally allows blacks to enter his place despite the anger of his neighbors? It is this nuanced humanity that this movement demands.

That most Hollywood-created features have failed to reach this standard is no surprise. The film industry was as much a pillar of institutional racism as any business in this country. To indict American racism is, by definition, to attack the machine that created decades of stereotypes.

The fail-safe response for Hollywood has been to depict racial prejudice in cartoon caricature, a technique that has made the Southern redneck a cinematic bad guy on par with Nazis, Arab terrorists and zombies. By denying the casual, commonplace quality of racial prejudice, and peering into the saddest values of the greatest generation, Hollywood perpetuates an ahistorical vision of how democracy and white supremacy comfortably co-existed.

To protect viewers, sometimes at profound damage to the historical record, white heroes are featured and sometimes concocted for these movies, giving blacks a supporting role in their own struggle for liberation. Films of this stripe are legion, though the most irritating example remains Mississippi Burning, in which two F.B.I. agents are at the center of an investigation into the murder of civil rights activists. It was a bitter pill for movement veterans to swallow since the agents’ boss, J. Edgar Hoover, was as vicious an opponent as any Southern Dixiecrat. Though not as egregious, both Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi and the adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill fit this formula.

The other Hollywood fallback strategy when dealing with the movement (or race-themed film set in any period) is to employ “the Magic Negro,” a character whose function is to serve as a mirror so that the white lead can see himself more clearly, sometimes at the expense of the black character’s life. Sidney Poitier’s selfless convict in The Defiant Ones was probably the definitive Magic Negro role, though the formula has survived decades, from Will Smith’s God-like caddy in The Legend of Bagger Vance up to Jennifer Hudson’s helpful secretary in Sex and the City — just a few incarnations of this timeless saint.

But having a black character at the center of a story hasn’t guaranteed smooth sailing artistically or at the box office either. Contemporary black moviegoers are several generations removed from the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the tradition of noble struggle and nonviolent protest that made progress possible. In grappling with the audiences’ changing sensibilities the wave of black filmmakers who came of age in the early ’90s have, when they get their shot at civil rights history, shied away from traditional protest narratives.—NYTimes

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Softening Segregation for a Feel-Good Flick—Stockett’s novel presented a vision of segregation in service of a feel-good story, but the film version of The Help is even more distant from the virulence of American racism. Its villains, Junior League bigots who wear smart little suits to cover their scales, are so cartoonish that viewers won’t risk recognizing themselves or echoes of their behavior in them. The heroines—a privileged, liberal, white Mississippi woman named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) and two black domestic workers, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis)  and and Minny Jackson (a particularly good Octavia Spencer)—are much easier to identify with. The project that brings them together, a secret oral history of maids’ lives in Jackson, may spotlight the domestic side of racism. But other than a mention of unenforced minimum-wage laws and a scene of the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ murder, the movie is disengaged with the public legal framework that let white women treat their white servants dreadfully in private. In The Help, whether you’re black or white, liberation’s just a matter of improving your self-esteem. 

From its initial publication, The Help was met with criticism from writers like the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, although also with upbeat reviews and a rapturous commercial reception (it has sold more than five million copies). The black characters in the novel speak in fairly heavy, sentimentalized dialect. The local civil rights movement originates from a naive white girl, not an organized, black-led movement. Worse, earlier this year, a woman named Ablene Cooper who has worked for Kathryn Stockett for more than a decade sued Stockett, claiming that she had lifted Cooper’s life story in a way that was damaging to her. Whether or not the complaint has merit, it resonated with critics of the novel who see The Help as yet another appropriation of black struggles to heap laurels on a white character. The problem isn’t that white people weren’t involved in the Civil Rights movement. Stanley Nelson’s marvelous documentary Freedom Riders follows both the black riders who started the historic anti-segregation journey and the white riders who joined them—and who, on some stops, were beaten worse than their counterparts for being supposed race traitors. Janie Forsyth McKinney, who was just 12 at the time, gave water and medical care to the Freedom Riders after the men of her community attacked the activists’ Greyhound bus outside her father’s convenience store. Stories like hers should indeed be told.

But there’s danger in treating racial discrimination as if it’s equivalent to other forms of hardship, which other recent civil rights movies have repeatedly done. John Waters’ original 1988 dance-competition movie Hairspray was quite pointed in its depictions of racial anxiety: Two anti-integrationists plot to bomb a dance competition, and there’s a very funny scene where several characters talk themselves out of jail by exploiting white fears of miscegenation. But on Broadway and in the 2007 Hollywood musical update, stories about white overweight characters and their self-confidence were elevated to the point where prejudice towards certain body weights appeared nearly as important and deeply entrenched as racism. 2009’s Invictus, far and away the most commercially successful movie about the struggle to overcome apartheid in South Africa (if one doesn’t count Lethal Weapon 2), is concerned less with the people who fought, like activist Steve Biko, than with white South Africans who needed to find a way to demonstrate that they could represent their entire country. The Help is not the worst offender in this class of well-intentioned but perhaps inevitably flawed movies. While Skeeter conceives of the oral history project, Aibileen and Minny become its real authors. In the novel, though unfortunately not in the movie, Skeeter also comes clean to her editor about the role that Aibileen played in writing her housekeeping columns and gets Aibileen hired as her replacement, quietly bringing down another racial barrier. Similarly, while the novel treats Minny’s decision to leave her abusive husband Leroy as complex and directly related to the financial security she doesn’t have until the end of the book, the movie frames that decision as a simple act of self-determination. And at the screening I attended, the audience actually laughed when Leroy (who is never seen on-screen) began throwing things at Minny as a precursor to her beating (though perhaps that’s because Octavia Spencer is such a strong comedic actress).  Indeed, the movie, which necessarily sacrifices some character development in the name of space and speed, also conspicuously cuts out powerful illustrations of racial violence. While we get soft-hued flashbacks to Skeeter’s memories of Constantine, the black woman who raised her, there are no such flashbacks to the violent, unnecessary death of Aibileen’s son. In another scene, Yule May, one of Minny and Aibileen’s friends, is arrested for stealing a ring from her employer. The shot shows white police manhandling and cuffing her, but when they swing at her head with a baton, the impact of the weapon against her skull is cut out of the frame. An incident of racial violence that illustrates the cost of the main villain’s quest for separate bathrooms for African-American servants is left out of the movie entirely. Even a notably gory miscarriage scene from the book is reduced to a blood-soaked nightgown and an artfully smeared bathroom floor visible only for a moment. One way to deal with the “shitty things” in our past that Louis C.K. refers to is to downplay their existence and persistence; to cover them up in candy-colored dresses and the memorable sight of Allison Janney, as Skeeter’s mother, in a turban; to tell us that Medgar Evers was murdered but to show us John F. Kennedy’s funeral instead. The film’s timidity shows that we’re not even close to eliminating racism in America. While Skeeter may have Richard Wright’s Native Son and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in her bedroom in Mississippi, The Help is a pastel ghost of those predecessors.—TheAtlantic

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Cinema is a young art form, but even in its short history one can find attitudes that seem almost medieval. 1942’s Holiday Inn featured Bing Crosby in blackface, and a scene of him tucking into an entire roast turkey while his coloured housekeeper, “Mamie,” looked on. A quarter-century later, Norman Jewison couldn’t film In the Heat of the Night in Mississippi because of racial tensions.

The Help, based on the popular 2009 book by Kathryn Stockett, portrays a world in which slavery, a century after abolition, lives on in a truncated form under a new name in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Society is white. The help is black. And while the maids do the childrearing and the chores, the two worlds never meet. . . .

The common element is not constant mistreatment so much as capriciousness. Forget about employment standards and severance; a black maid in Mississippi could be jailed on the mere suspicion of minor theft. As a way of setting off the magnolia-dappled South, Tate occasionally cuts away to Mary Steenburgen as a books editor in a Manhattan skyscraper. She provides minimal encouragement— “Write it fast before this whole civil rights thing blows over,” she says blithely—but things get personal when Skeeter questions why her own family’s maid left so suddenly.

The Help doesn’t quite capture the tense tone of the book, and even at more than two hours feels pared down. Tate, a childhood friend of the author, compensates by deftly dropping in bits of background detail. Spencer and Davis anchor the superb cast, the latter providing occasional voice-over and some zippy lines. “Miss Leefolt should not be having babies,” she declares when asked to describe her boss. “Write that down.”

Stone conveys ambition and intelligence but a bit of a blank-slate personality as Skeeter, which should help calm those who complain of whites appropriating African-American stories. (Blacklash?) Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek shine as women who find wisdom late in life and make the most of it.

Tate frames each character well, letting us see that all-important gaze. When she starts talking to Aibileen about her book idea, Skeeter’s eyes flash with excitement, but the maid’s are fixed on the sidewalk in front of her. Tellingly, the white woman doesn’t notice.—NationalPost

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Black and white, and not enough ‘Help’—Fair warning: The Help, which Taylor wrote for the screen as well as directed, isn’t likely to win any converts among those who couldn’t abide Stockett’s dialect-heavy writing and earnest but vaguely self-congratulatory tale of a young white writer who strikes up a Jim Crow-defying friendship with black domestic workers in 1963 Mississippi. . . .

One of those truths, which The Help deserves praise for bringing to light, is that racism should be understood less as a matter of black grievance than of unexamined white privilege and pathology. And no one is more race-crazy than Hilly, portrayed by Dallas Howard in The Help weakest performance as a cruel, snake-eyed witch whose villainy extends to making Minny use an outside toilet even during a hurricane.

Hilly’s monstrousness is in keeping with The Helps tendency to reduce its characters to stock types, but it has the effect of enabling white viewers to distance themselves from racism’s subtler, more potent expressions. (Far more troubling than Hilly’s brand of insanity is the disapproving but passive acquiescence of her mother, played with vinegary brio by Sissy Spacek.)

With clunky, episodic pacing, Taylor traces the genesis and effect of Skeeter’s project, including The Helps climactic sequence, when Minny performs an act of subterfuge that, depending on taste and perspective, will play like a heroic act of subversion or a crass burlesque. Surely both taste and perspective will inform whether viewers will find The Help a revelatory celebration of interracial healing and transcendence, or a patronizing portrait that trivializes those alliances by reducing them to melodrama and facile uplift. (By way of comparison, the 2008 drama The Secret Life of Bees struck a far more sensitive, observant chord in its portrayal of similar themes in a similar place and time.)

As affectionately as Taylor has brought The Help to the screen, and as gratifying as it is to watch Davis and Spencer bring Aibileen and Minny to palpable, fully rounded life, their narrative, like The Blind Side a few years ago, is structured largely around their white female benefactor. That this is the story we keep telling ourselves is all the more puzzling—if not galling—when viewers consider that, precisely at the time that The Help transpires, African Americans across Mississippi were registering to vote and agitating for political change. In other words, they were helping themselves. And, on screen at least, their story remains largely untold.—WashingtonPost

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Kathryn Stockett Is Not My Sister and I Am Not Her Help—Duchess Harris, Ph.D., J.D.—I did not attend Wednesday’s movie release of The Help from DreamWorks Pictures, based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.  Why, you ask? Because I read the book.

Last week New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni saw an advance screening of the movie and referred to it as  “…a story of female grit and solidarity—of strength through sisterhood.”  He wrote, “The book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, told me that she felt that most civil rights literature had taken a male perspective, leaving ‘territory that hadn’t been covered much.’” What neither Bruni nor Stockett acknowledge is that the real territory remaining uncovered is civil rights literature written by the Black women who experienced it.

I recently read The Help with an open mind, despite some of the criticism it has received.  I assumed the book would be racially problematic, because for me, most things are.  The novel opens on the fourth Wednesday in August 1962, at the bridge club meeting in the modest home of 23-year old, social climbing Miss Leefolt.  The plot unfolds when her “friend” and the novel’s antagonist, Miss Hilly, the President of the Jackson, Mississippi Junior League, announces that she will support legislation for a “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” a bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. (10)

We learn early on that Miss Skeeter, the only bridge club lady with a college degree and no husband, opposes the idea.  By page 12, she asks Miss Leefolt’s maid Aibleen, “Do you ever wish you could…change things?”  This lays the groundwork for a 530-page novel telling the story of Black female domestics in Jackson.

The first two chapters were written in the voice of a Black maid named Aibileen, so I hoped that the book would actually be about her.  But this is America, and any Southern narrative that actually touches on race must focus on a noble white protagonist to get us through such dangerous territory (in this case, Miss Skeeter; in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch).  As a Black female reader, I ended up feeling like one of “the help,” forced to tend to Miss Skeeter’s emotional sadness over the loss of her maid (whom she loved more than her own white momma) and her social trials regarding a clearly racist “Jim Crow” bill.

What is most concerning about the text is the empathy that we are supposed to have for Miss Skeeter.  This character is not a true white civil rights activist like the historical figure, Viola Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 – March 25, 1965), a mother of five from Michigan murdered by Ku Klux Klan members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama.  Instead, Skeeter is a lonely recent grad of Ole Miss, who returns home after college, devastated that her maid is gone and that she is “stuck” with her parents.  She remarks, “I had to accept that Constantine, my one true ally, had left me to fend for myself with these people.” (81) Constantine is Miss Skeeter’s Black maid, and it’s pretty transparent that Stockett is writing about herself.  We learn this in the novel’s epilogue, “Too Little, Too Late:  Kathryn Stockett, in her own words.”

“My parents divorced when I was six.   Demetrie became even more important then.  When my mother went on one of her frequent trips[…] I’d cry and cry on Demetrie’s shoulder, missing my mother so bad I’d get a fever from it.” (p. 527)

                                                                                                                                                                             photo right: Duchess Harris, Ph.D., J.D.

“I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family.  It never occurred to us to ask.  It was everyday life.  It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine.  I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie the same question. She died when I was sixteen.  I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be.  And that is why I wrote this book.” (p. 530)

It would have behooved Stockett to ask her burning question of another Black domestic, or at least read some memoirs on the subject, but instead she substitutes her imagination for understanding.  And the result is that The Help isn’t for Black women at all, and quickly devolves into just another novel by and for white women.

But when the novel attempts to enter the mindset of the Black women, like Aibleen or her best friend Minny, suddenly we enter the realm of the ridiculous.  Although Stockett’s writing shows her talent, her ignorance of the real lives of the Black women bleeds through.  Her Black characters lack the credibility reflected in Coming of Age in Mississippi, a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody, an African American woman growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s.  Moody recalls doing domestic work for white families from the age of nine. Moody’s voice is one of a real Black woman who left her own house and family each morning to cook in another woman’s kitchens.

So instead of incorporating a real Black woman’s voice in a novel purported to being about Black domestics, the Skeeter/Stockett character is comfortingly centralized, and I can see why white women relate to her.  She is depicted as a budding feminist, who is enlightened and brave.  But in reality, she uses the stories of the Black domestics in the name of “sisterhood” to launch her own career, and then leaves them behind.  In my experience, the Skeeters of the world grow up to be Gloria Steinem.

In a certain sense, The Help exemplifies the disconnect many Black women have felt from Feminist Movement through the second wave.  For 20 years, I read accounts of Black women who were alienated from that movement primarily populated by middle-class white women.  Black women have asserted their voices since the 1960s as a means of revising feminism and identifying the gap previously denied by the movement and filled by their minds, spirits and bodies. Yet, because I was born in the midst of the second wave and the Black Feminist Movement, I never felt alienated, myself, until the 2008 Presidential election.

It started with the extremely unpleasant showdown between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, (now  Perry) surrounding Steinem’s New York Times op-ed about then-Senator Barack Obama. This was followed by the late Geraldine Ferraro’s dismissive comments that Senator Obama was winning the race because he was not White. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. … He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”—FeministWire

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Why Hollywood keeps whitewashing the past—Based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, and endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, this civil rights-era movie about a young Caucasian writer telling the harsh but true stories of African-American domestics appears to grant the stories of its white and black characters equal weight. It even gives the voice-over narration to one of the maids, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis). But the pretense of dramatic equality collapses if you look at what’s actually happening on-screen, and what got marginalized or omitted.

This isn’t the story of beleaguered domestics standing up for themselves during a time of American apartheid. It’s the story of a perky proto-feminist writer (Emma Stone’s “Skeeter” Phelan) cajoling black women into standing up for themselves by telling her their stories and letting her publish them in book form. It’s about what a good-hearted and tenacious person Skeeter is, and how lucky the maids are to have met her.

It’s not just African-American stories that get whitened up for film. Cheyenne Autumn, Soldier Blue, A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves and Geronimo viewed the 19th century destruction of Native-American culture through the eyes of white folks. Come See the Paradise viewed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II through the eyes of a white union organizer who had fallen in love with a beautiful Japanese-American detainee. Cry Freedom, A Dry White Season, Invictus and both film versions of Cry, the Beloved Country were mainly interested in what happened to white people’s consciences when black suffering stopped being an abstraction and started to affect them personally.

I’ve heard somewhat sheepish arguments to the effect that the white folks’ stories take center stage in these films because they’re more clearly dramatic. Why? Well, you see, it’s because drama—commercial mainstream drama, anyway—is about people learning, changing and growing, and the non-white characters’ stories are less dramatic because they already know discrimination is bad, which means their “arcs” are inherently less interesting. No, I promise you, some moviemakers really do think this way. The only proper response to this kind of thinking is to smack one’s forehead—or better yet, the filmmaker’s—with a tack hammer. At least it’s offered timidly and rarely, and as a commercial rather than an artistic defense. . . .

It might not be a bad idea for filmmakers to lay off the big, tried-and-true historical topics for a while—civil rights, slavery, the Holocaust, America’s righteous participation in World War II, the moral tragedy of Vietnam—and deal with more recent eras. I’m not suggesting anything radical. I mean “something that happened 20 years ago as opposed to 50. Movies about actual recent history—9/11, Iraq, the financial meltdown, the dog-whistle racism of 21st-century America—tend to bomb.

Better yet, filmmakers could deal with controversial subjects by way of metaphor or parable. This sounds like a dodge, but it could be liberating. And it couldn’t possibly yield a more tepid movie than The Help. As engrossing as it is, it’s still a white liberal fantasy in historical drag—”Crash” with smiles and hugs.—Salon

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Listening To The Help—By Esther Iverem—9 August, 2011—The Help is a post-Oprah Black maid movie. It is unapologetic about its subject matter. Despite her greater sensitivity, Skeeter still approaches her task with a sense of privilege, entitlement and with the sense that she already knows these women. Though the story is more about Skeeter than any of the Black characters, it is still well worth it to “hear” some of the story and voices of women like Aibileen and Milly (played to award-wining perfection by Octavia Spencer). These are mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who endured a work life that we would not have the strength to endure. They paved the way for a society where we take for granted the freedom to tell our own stories and to work without racial humiliation—even if we don’t totally have either of those things.—Seeingblack

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Inconvenient Facts: The Whiteness of Memory in “The Help” Versus the Ugly Realities of Jim and Jane Crow America—12 August 2011— Chauncey DeVega—As hinted at by some of the reviews of The Help, there is an avoidance of the true depth and evil of white supremacy in segregated America and how the colorline ordered life from the cradle to the grave–where one could buy clothes (or even if a black person could try them on before purchase), walk on a sidewalk, or be buried upon dying were governed by racialized law whose primary intent was the “preservation” of “social order” through the oppression of African Americans and the false elevation of Whites.

Moreover, the laws governing Jim and Jane Crow were signals to social custom, guidelines for day to day life practices, and a normative project for how the races ought to be situated relative to one another. In black and white, when presented in stark relief, they upset the fuzzy nostalgia of the flattened history offered by the white savior genre of popular films of which The Help is apparently part of.

For your consideration, some inconvenient examples of the Racial State in practice, most pointedly taken from laws governing some of the more common aspects of life in these United States:

Pool and Billiard Rooms It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards.

Cohabitation Any negro man and white woman, or any white man and negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall each be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve (12) months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred ($500.00) dollars.

Juvenile Delinquents There shall be separate buildings, not nearer than one fourth mile to each other, one for white boys and one for negro boys. White boys and negro boys shall not, in any manner, be associated together or worked together.

Mental Hospitals The Board of Control shall see that proper and distinct apartments are arranged for said patients, so that in no case shall Negroes and white persons be together.

Barbers No colored barber shall serve as a barber [to] white women or girls.

Burial The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons.

Amateur Baseball It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race, and it shall be unlawful for any amateur colored baseball team to play baseball in any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of any playground devoted to the white race.

Circus Tickets All circuses, shows, and tent exhibitions, to which the attendance of…more than one race is invited or expected to attend shall provide for the convenience of its patrons not less than two ticket offices with individual ticket sellers, and not less than two entrances to the said performance, with individual ticket takers and receivers, and in the case of outside or tent performances, the said ticket offices shall not be less than twenty-five (25) feet apart.

The Blind The board of trustees shall…maintain a separate building…on separate ground for the admission, care, instruction, and support of all blind persons of the colored or black race.

Promotion of Equality Any person…who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both.

Fishing, Boating, and Bathing The [Conservation] Commission shall have the right to make segregation of the white and colored races as to the exercise of rights of fishing, boating and bathing.

Telephone Booths The Corporation Commission is hereby vested with power and authority to require telephone companies…to maintain separate booths for white and colored patrons when there is a demand for such separate booths. That the Corporation Commission shall determine the necessity for said separate booths only upon complaint of the people in the town and vicinity to be served after due hearing as now provided by law in other complaints filed with the Corporation Commission.—Alternet

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Judge throws out suit against ‘The Help’ author—By Holbrook Mohr—16 August 2011—A Mississippi judge threw out a lawsuit Tuesday in which Ablene Cooper alleged Stockett used her likeness without permission in a book about relationships between white families and their black maids in the segregated South of the 1960s. Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green granted a motion for summary judgment, dismissing the case because a one-year statute of limitations elapsed between the time when Stockett gave Cooper a copy of the book and when the lawsuit was filed. The lawsuit sought $75,000 in damages. Stockett was not in court in Jackson, the same city where the book is set. Cooper wiped away tears leaving the courtroom and went on an emotional rant outside the courthouse. “She’s a liar. She did it. She knows she did it,” Cooper screamed. . . . 

The judge did not make any determination on whether Cooper was the basis for the character, Aibileen, saying the statute of limitations trumped those matters. . . . The suit also says that during a 2009 interview with The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Stockett said: “When I was writing this book I never thought anyone else would read it, so I didn’t get real creative with the names. I just used people I knew. Some of them aren’t talking to me right now, but I feel like they’ll come around.” Cooper said she’s been embarrassed and distraught by the language used by the character that she says is based on her. “You see how I’m hurt? You know I’m hurt,” Cooper said outside the courthouse.

The lawsuit quotes passages from the book, including one in which Aibileen’s character describes a cockroach: “He black. Blacker than me.” The lawsuit says Cooper found it upsetting and highly offensive to be portrayed as someone “who uses this kind of language and compares her skin color to a cockroach.”—KLEWTV

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‘The Help’ and White Female Identity—By Stephanie Crumpton—16 August 2011—I am not convinced that The Help is about telling the stories of Black domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi. While Viola Davis (amazing) and Octavia Spencer (fantastic) both do an incredible job of bringing their characters to life, the movie really isn’t about Aibilene, Minny or the other Black women who did domestic work for white families in the Jim Crow South. This movie is about Skeeter, who discovers her voice and passion through collecting and publishing Black women’s stories of surrogacy and servitude. . . .

And, what happens if white female viewers take up the movie as an inspiration without examining these ideas and how their lives may or may not be pervaded by them. What does this movie mean for white women who disdain their mothers for not raising them because they were too busy maintaining white upper middle class appearances? What does it mean for white women who torture one another as they claw their way up social ladders to attain status? What does this movie mean for women with white skin who find themselves rejected by other white women because they lack pedigree, or cannot birth babies?

I know this is only a movie, but since it’s already being hailed as a great work that triumphs the human spirit, I take the ideas embedded in the images it presents seriously. Historically, under the racial apartheid of Jim Crow, Black women were often the ones who were used to fill the gaps in mothering and labor while white women grappled with the social context that the movie depicts. What does it mean for these racial ideas to be part of what a white woman embodies and represents as she sits down beside a Black woman to form a circle of sisterhood?

I actually believe that The Help is an important movie for people to see because it does present opportunities for dialogue about mothering, relationships between women, identity, class, and race. My hope, however, is that women (Black and white) will not skip over exploring the systemic oppressions that the movie raises, and how those forces impact not only Black women, but also white female identity.—UrbanCusp

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Daughters of the Help—By Mark Anthony Neal—Both my grandmother and my mother-in-law were domestics at one time or another during their lifetimes. My grandmother, now deceased, worked as a domestic for a time in the late 1960s for former New York Mets manager Davey Johnson, then a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles. My mother-in-law worked as a domestic until her husband could acquire the kind of job that would allow her to stay at home and raise their children, the youngest of which is my wife. I imagine that both my grandmother and mother-in-law would readily admit that their experiences as domestics were far different than those experienced by black women in the Deep South in places like Jackson, MS, where The Help is set.

Unlike Minny, my grandmother was able to raise daughters—my mother and aunts—who would not have to spend their lives working as domestics, but instead had careers as teachers, health-care workers and ministers. It was the same with my mother-in-law, whose two daughters both earned college degrees, in part because she could give her daughters the attention that they deserved, instead of the children of the families that she once worked for.

My own 13 year-old daughter, offered little comment after viewing The Help, sensing that her parents had critiques that she did not share. She is of a generation of young blacks for which multiculturalism is the default position; I imagine that the heroic white person, whether found in The Help or The Blindside (which she cites as her favorite film) offers comfort within that multi-cultural worldview, as Tea Partiers, Birthers and segregationists in the neighboring Wake County threaten to turn back the clock on her. In this regard, one of the biggest failings of The Help is that a teenage black daughter could watch the film and come away not fully understanding the sacrifices made by the black daughters that came before her; that black daughter that allows her to take comfort in the very heroic white figures that Hollywood continues to manufacture.—NewBlackMan

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Why I Will Not See The Help: A Rant—By Rosetta E. Ross—I will not go to see the movie The Help because already I have encountered and regularly encounter enough messages suggesting history is made only by white agency. Twenty years ago, I watched the movie Cry Freedom expecting to see the story of Steve Biko’s tremendous efforts in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime. I left the theater disappointed that the movie had sublimated and transferred Biko’s courage and tenacity to make Donald Wood (a white journalist I’d never heard of) the story’s hero. This is how I experienced the book The Help.

The second false message is this: The really important point of all cultural production and activity is for white agency and dignity to be actualized. The overarching plot of this book presents the narrative of a young white woman finding herself and her voice amidst clichés, circumscriptions, traditions of the South during the 1960s. Against this background, the black women are instrumental in Skeeter’s journey into adulthood. Skeeter’s journey is the more prominent message of the book, and, I suspect, of the film as well. I will not go to see the movie The Help because I do not wish to view yet another production that tells me, a black woman, it is all about whiteness.

This brings me to the third, and most detrimental false message: Black persons—perhaps people of color, generally—exist primarily to serve or enhance the lives of white people.

When I was in seminary at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, I once heard now-deceased United Methodist Bishop Nolan Harmon justify enslavement to his Methodist Polity class by saying that “somebody had to do the work.” (The economic structure of the South depended on farming and 19th-century farming required vast human labor.)

Nolan Harmon was a signatory of the infamous letter from eight Southern white clergy saying Birmingham demonstrations were “unwise and untimely,” which prompted Martin Luther King Jr. to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The fact that clergy wrote the letter criticizing Birmingham protests demonstrates a significant function of religions (and religious leaders) in social life; religions function as primary aids in structuring and sustaining social systems.

A predominant element of the Western imaginary, the idea that black persons ultimately exist as servants for white life, has long been supported by rhetorical constructions of Christianity. The most obvious examples, of course, were rituals such as catechisms about the necessity for [black] servants to obey [white] masters.—Facebook

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Rudy, this is one of those works where I should excuse myself from the conversation, get like Dave Chappelle and plead 1,2,3,4, fiffffffffffffth! But I won’t, lol! There will be no mealy-mouthed “universal” narration over what I have to say. . .  .

Having grown up hearing some of the very real horror stories from The Help who were my family (and yes, the invisible men also have their own versions of this as well), it’s really tough to read some Disneyfied version of what most will tell you in their own voices, loud and clear, was some straight up bs. And this is coming from someone who felt equal distaste for the film version of PUSH and a whole host of works in the bestselling black pathology vein Hollywood (and book publishing) loves best.

But people do what they must to care for themselves, their families. And many did so, while trying to maintain their dignity and keep their work in perspective. . . . I am very grateful for all “the help” they offered us, their grandchildren. They are the bridges. I think what rankles for some is that once again “Miss Anne” seems to be cashing in on other folks’ misery. It may be an unfair criticism, but that’s the historical and socio-political backdrop. As they say, there it is. Doubtless, Stockton wrote from her heart, told the story she most wanted to tell.

The rest of “the help” better tell their own . . . and hope they can get artists as talented as Davis and Stone to star in them—if they are fortunate enough to get their works to screen.—Sheree Renée Thomas

Thanks, Sheree. Your heartfelt response is timely. . . . My mother too was a maid (at a Baltimore hotel like Hattie Carroll) and my grandmother (for a southern Virginia landowner), as well. Like my great grandmother so many black women were also washerwomen. WasherWomenTable. Many cannot imagine the terror of that world, the humiliating, demeaning aspects of living in the shadows of terrorizing individual whites just to feed your children. To make light or rosy of that world just for the success of one white girl is to throw lucre over that which was sacrificial and dignified. —Rudolph Lewis  

I am currently writing a little piece on when I was “the help” back in the late 50s. I have not seen the film but heard a lot about it. It was quite an experience living among rich white folks who needed to show they had money by having . . . the help. I was a babysitter for a very young child and I worked for a couple from Baltimore who owned a paper box factory. They rented a cottage on the beach in Cape May, New Jersey and I w as hired to take care of a very small toddler named Garrison. The family was a bunch of drunkards and pretenders and cared nothing for the child. They bought me a “maid’s uniform” to wear whenever the “master” of the house drove down to the beach from Baltimore on the weekends. During the week I refused to wear the uniform with a little black apron. Personally, I terrorized the lady of the house and did what I chose to do. When she was off at the beach sunning herself, I was busy finding all the other colored women working as maids and set up a hair salon in “my” place to do their hair in the mornings. When the lady of the house returned in the afternoon the house smelled like burned hair and I acted like I did not know what she was talking about. It was a crazy 15th summer. It was the summer I fell in love with silk shantung Bermuda shorts, perfume oil that was almost black and expensive jewelry. I have quite a story to tell about my summer as ‘the help.” I saw some terrible things that summer.—Peggy Brooks-Bertram

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Suggested Readings:


Alice Childress, Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life

Marlon James, The Book of the Night Women

Barbara Neeley, Blanche on the Lam

Ann Petry, The Street

Susan Straight, A Million Nightingales

Minrose Gwin, The Queen of Palmyra


Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household

Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War

Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present

Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration

Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi

Duchess Harris, Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Obama

Duchess Harris, Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity

Source: ABWH

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My Mother Was a Maid

Letter to Don By Dr. Joyce E. King

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Dangerous White Stereotypes— By Patricia A. Turner— August 28, 2011— This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists. There’s a problem, though, with that message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.

Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of To Kill a Mockingbird, a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.

But that wasn’t the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man’s Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. An analogue can be seen in the way popular culture treats Germans up to and during World War II. Good people were never anti-Semites; only detestable people participated in Hitler’s cause. Cultures function and persist by consensus. In Jackson and other bastions of the Jim Crow South, the pervasive notion, among poor whites and rich, that blacks were unworthy of full citizenship was as unquestioned as the sanctity of church on Sunday. The Help tells a compelling and gripping story, but it fails to tell that one.

I have dim recollections of watching Dr. King in 1963, with the black maid who raised me—my mother. If my father wasn’t in the room, he was working to make sure there would be opportunities in my future. I have benefited enormously from their hard work and from the shift that American culture has undergone as the scaffolding of discrimination was dismantled. My parents, and the countless other black Americans who not only endured but thrived within the limited occupational sphere granted them, would have been proud of what has been accomplished since 1963, but they would not have wanted us to whitewash that earlier world.—


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Sister Citizen Melissa Harris-Perry

Interviewed by Kam Williams

Kam Williams: Lee also asks: Why the negative response to The Help?

Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, Gosh! I could spend all day answering this one. The intensity of my negative response was in part related to having just published Sister Citizen. So, I had been thinking a lot about the stereotypes and the images of black women. Both the book and the film are, for me, terribly problematic, because they’re very, very dishonest, romanticized versions of one of the most important aspects of African-American women’s working lives, namely, being domestic servants. For most of American history since slavery, that’s the type of work that we’ve done.

My grandmother was a domestic worker. The Help claimed to be told from the perspective of the African-American maids, but it isn’t. I could go on in considerable depth about it, but let me address the two most dishonest aspects. The first is the fact that although the author tried to illustrate the tension between white women and their maids, she ignores the black women’s relationships with two other very important groups in the household: the white men and the white children. She refuses to imagine that they could have felt anything other than pure love, attachment, affection and fidelity towards the kids they were hired to care for. It is such a bizarre, romantic notion that they didn’t have mixed feelings about spending so much time caring for children of privilege while their own offspring went neglected because they were in these white households.

Clearly, the book was written from the perspective of a person who had been raised by one of these loving black maids and who therefore couldn’t imagine anything but affection on the part of the caretaker. The second dishonest aspect of the book was how it ignored the violence by white men against blacks. One scene in the movie that just made me want to rip my hair out was when, in response to the Medgar Evers assassination, all the maids finally decide to talk to Miss Skeeter. That is made up! That is not what happened!

The truth is that when Medgar Evers was murdered, the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi organized themselves and went out into the streets en masse, thereby not only putting their jobs in jeopardy but risking violent reprisals on the part of the police and the white community. The Help ignores that brave, real-life effort in favor of a fantasy suggesting that what they needed was to share their stories with a white woman in secret. A careful author would’ve done her research and then incorporated what actually transpired, because accounts about these maids’ bravery are readily available. The danger that I fear now is that The Help will become the historical record because of its popularity, and that people who see the movie will come to believe that that’s really what happened.

Kam Williams: Yeah, like how the misleading images in Gone with the Wind came to replace the truth about The South during slavery.

Melissa Harris-Perry: Exactly! That’s precisely what happened with both Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation. Popular films are so powerful and compelling that it’s often easier to accept their versions of history than the much more complicated true stories. That’s why the most distressing aspect for me about The Help has been the number of African-American women I’ve encountered who didn’t know how dishonest the story was. I just don’t want us, in our own politics, to fall into the trap of reproducing it.    

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Tavis Smiley—Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer

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Mammy to Minnie: Black Women Oscar Winners—Luchina Fisher—28 February 2012—After Octavia Spencer won the Academy Award for best supporting actress, Jennifer Hudson, who won the same award in 2006, was first to welcome her into the very exclusive club of black women Oscar winners. . . . Like all families, this one comes with baggage. For most Oscar winners, an Academy Award is a boon to their careers, both in terms of roles and earning power. For black women, the road after Oscar seems to be less certain. “The reality is there aren’t enough good roles for black women, let alone plus sized ones,” Village Voice columnist Michael Musto told

Just look at Mo’Nique, who won the same award in 2010 for Precious. She only recently signed onto her next feature after her BET talk show was cancelled. Then, there’s her co-star Gabourey Sidibe, who was nominated for a best actress Oscar. After a couple of small film roles, Sidibe is now a regular on the Showtime series “The Big C” with Laura Linney. Spencer, who became only the sixth black woman to win an Oscar, has more acting chops than both and should fare better. “Octavia has already shown her range in both drama and wacky comedy, so she should do fine in a variety of character parts that show off her talent. In addition to films, there’s also TV (which Octavia’s already done and can shine in again),” Musto said—abcnews

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The Help

By  Kathryn Stockett

Four peerless actors render an array of sharply defined black and white characters in the nascent years of the civil rights movement. They each handle a variety of Southern accents with aplomb and draw out the daily humiliation and pain the maids are subject to, as well as their abiding affection for their white charges. The actors handle the narration and dialogue so well that no character is ever stereotyped, the humor is always delightful, and the listener is led through the multilayered stories of maids and mistresses. The novel is a superb intertwining of personal and political history in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, but this reading gives it a deeper and fuller power.—Publishers Weekly

In writing about such a troubled time in American history, Southern-born Stockett takes a big risk, one that paid off enormously. Critics praised Stockett’s skillful depiction of the ironies and hypocrisies that defined an era, without resorting to depressing or controversial clichés. Rather, Stockett focuses on the fascinating and complex relationships between vastly different members of a household. Additionally, reviewers loved (and loathed) Stockett’s three-dimensional characters—and cheered and hissed their favorites to the end. Several critics questioned Stockett’s decision to use a heavy dialect solely for the black characters. Overall, however, The Help is a compassionate, original story, as well as an excellent choice for book groups.—Bookmarks Magazine

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Living In, Living Out

African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940

By Elizabeth Clark-Lewis

This vivid tale of social transformation is original; the interview material is stunning. No one else has the richness of data about women making the transition from rural to urban, agricultural to industrial, southern to northern, family-dominated to individual-directed life. This is an extraordinarily rich account of a group of women in the very process of making these shifts basic to the creation of our urban, individualistic world. That they are African American women domestics makes the story even more striking and delicious.—Phyllis Palmer, author of Domesticity and Dirt

With candor and passion, the women interviewed tell of leaving their families and adjusting to city life “up North,” of being placed as live-in servants, and of the frustrations and indignities they endured as domestics. By networking on the job, at churches, and at penny savers clubs, they found ways to transform their unending servitude into an employer-employee relationship—gaining a new independence that could only be experienced by living outside of their employers’ homes. Clark-Lewis points out that their perseverance and courage not only improved their own lot but also transformed work life for succeeding generations of African American women. A series of in-depth vignettes about the later years of these women bears poignant witness to their efforts to carve out lives of fulfilment and dignity.—Smithsonian Books

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To ‘Joy My Freedom

Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War

By Tera W. Hunter

With great breadth, sensitivity, and intellectual integrity, Tera Hunter reorients southern history toward the urban working class. This tour de force further liberates African-American history from the need always to relate to whites. Bravo!—Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University

By bringing to life the experiences, aspirations, and struggles of the black domestic workers of Atlanta, Tera Hunter opens a new window on the study of emancipation and its aftermath and, in so doing, tremendously enriches our understanding of Reconstruction and the New South.—Eric Foner, Columbia University

In To ‘Joy My Freedom, Tera W. Hunter charts the efforts of African-American women in Atlanta to live fulfilling lives despite an all-pervasive racism, which was most terrifying in the city’s infamous race riot of 1906…One can only applaud Hunter’s efforts to recover the experience of her subjects from obscurity.—Times Literary Supplement

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 13 August 2011




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Related files:   Who or What Does “The Help” Help   My Mother Was a Maid      Tera Hunter & Joy My Freedom   Being a Maid By James McBride  Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Red Tails  Film Reviews of The Help    

Being a Maid By James McBride  Red Tails in the Sunset  

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