‘The Help’ Needs Some Help

By Joyce Yin
New Organizing Project blogger 
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(Photo Credit: csmonitor.com)

I saw ‘The Help’ a few days ago. I know, I know. Believe me when I say this wasn’t my original plan. When I first saw the movie trailers on television, I was skeptical. And then when I read reviews, both positive and negative, I’d decided that I wasn’t going to support the film. But when a friend, whose judgment I respect, asked me if I wanted to see the movie I acquiesced. I figured that 1) I should see the movie for myself and come to my own conclusions about it and 2) this could make for an interesting blog post. [Plus I needed to use a Fandango coupon that was about to expire, but that’s besides the point].

So, here I am a few days later and I’m still processing this film. But at the very least, I know that some of my major gripes are:

  1. Women of color can tell their own stories, dammit. Going into the movie, I had big reservations about seeing a movie that is based on a book by a white woman that is supposed to tell the stories of women of color. I mean, c’mon now. I had flashbacks to ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ all over again. White people get to tell their stories all the time. All the freakin’ time. And many times they get to do so in ways that are nuanced, complex and multi-faceted. Not to mention, they get far-reaching releases, too. People of color and other marginalized communities are rarely given the opportunity to do so in avenues like big budget films. And in the off-chance that they are, they are relegated to the sidelines while the story still revolves around a white protagonist. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post states it much more eloquently than I can:

    “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.”

    In ‘The Help,’ the story may have claimed to focus on the lives of these black maids but let’s be real here – it still primarily revolved around Skeeter, the white woman who was documenting the oral histories. The black women were supporting characters in a story that really should have focused on them! I’m tired of seeing people with certain kinds of privilege think that they can tell stories that aren’t theirs to tell.

  2. ‘White people were the help.’ In Entertainment Weekly, Martha Southgate brings up a crucial point:

    “Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.

    The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight — and more important, it was not their idea.”

    This is so. On. Point. Like how marginalized communities can tell their own stories, they can lead their own movements too. In being so busy to show us how harmoniously Skeeter and Aibileen worked together, the filmmakers conveniently forgot to mention this small detail.

  3. The caricaturizing of Hilly. In the film, Hilly’s character is essentially reduced to a two-dimensional portrayal. As the audience, we only know and see her as a mean-spirited racist who rules Jackson, Mississippi with an iron fist. Hilly is never shown to us in a positive light. We only see the way she manipulates and punishes people who don’t do things she tells them to do. This is highly problematic. This was Kathryn Stockett and Hollywood taking the easy way out. By portraying Hilly as a caricature rather than full-fledged human being, it was easier for the movie to pinpoint problems like inequality and injustice solely on her when you and I really know that oppression is a systemic issue that many people participate in. Bottom line, it was a cop out. By reducing Hilly to a stereotype and only a stereotype, this allowed Stockett and Hollywood to bypass having a more serious and complex discussion about racism and oppression. 

    I got even more annoyed when Hilly got her comeuppance of sorts at the hands of Minny and to me, the subtext was that ‘hey look! Hilly got what she deserved! All is right with the world. Let’s hug.’ In reality, the world doesn’t work like that. If that happened in real life, I’m sure the consequences Minny would’ve faced would’ve been more than just Hilly screaming at her. I understand that this is a movie but COME ON. It just gets me so angry that we’re expected to believe that what Minny did, that is seemingly the only solution on how to deal with racists. Yeah, okay.

  4. Stockett may have taken large parts of this story from the real ‘Aibileen’ without crediting her. I don’t even know what to say about this other than why am I not surprised.

All in all, the movie was about what I expected from a big movie corporation like Disney. I have a lot of other thoughts and opinions about the movie but I want to know what you think. Will you be going to see ‘The Help’? Why or why not? If you have, what did you think? Leave a comment!