The Help has been kicking ass at the box office for 2 weeks, and in that time, I’ve read numerous articles defending its subject matter and its storytelling device. Some of these pieces have been extremely condescending, with the writer expressing shock—SHOCK!!!!—that some people (uppity Negroes and “liberal” Whites, this means you) would find the film either patronizing or more of the same “Black story told through White characters shenanigans” Hollywood is known to pull. Equally condescending have been some of the conversations I’ve had, both online and in person, with people who love the film. I’ve been told that I don’t know how to watch a movie, that I went in looking for problems, and that I was just too Black to enjoy the movie. My personal favorite piece of wisdom came from a White colleague of mine, who looked me dead in my redbone face and told me that Kathryn Stockett, The Help’s author, knew more about the Black experience than I did. Granted, Black women had a hand in both our upbringings, but unlike Ms. Stockett’s influential mother figure, mine repeatedly made it clear that she was not my goddamn maid.
I don’t know anyone who read The Help, and I haven’t picked up a book on the South since I read The Secret Life Of Bees. Guys, if you want to see what the universal hand signal for vagina is, bring some chick lit on a plane. Even the flight attendants were throwing up the pussy dubs to mock me. Since I haven’t read The Help, I can only assume that, with the luxury of over 500 pages of reading time, Ms. Stockett presented her characters and their situation in a deeper fashion than 137 minutes of screen time could. After all, Miss Sofia just loved it to pieces and put it on her Book Club.
This was the original Abbey Road album cover.
Entertainment Weekly, a magazine that somehow keeps coming to my house despite the fact I cancelled it 5 years ago and moved twice within that time trying to outrun it, did a big write-up/interview section on The Help the week it came out. The piece, which featured the film’s three main actresses, Stockett and the film’s director, Tate Taylor, took pains to constantly remind me the movie had the Good Housekeeping Seal of African-American Approval. Tyler Perry loved it! The NAACP blessed it! A Black audience in Chicago danced the Hucklebuck after a screening! Pictures of Black Jesus were weeping at grandmother’s houses everywhere! (OK, Black Jesus and the Hucklebuck are slight exaggerations on my part.) But Stockett and Taylor discussing their influential maids in EW made my skin crawl, as both of them are my age and I unrealistically didn’t want to think that someone of privilege could have a Black maid raising them in the 70’s and 80’s. I suppose that’s my problem.
Cry Freedom and Mississippi Burning. In truth, having the story told through a White device is actually more insulting to White people than to us. It’s as if Hollywood is saying “you can’t put yourselves in the shoes of an ethnic character, so here’s Kevin Kline! He’s JUST…LIKE…YOU!!!” At least Hollywood thinks minorities are smart enough to relate to the White characters.
I’m tired of these movies, and even more tired of getting into discussions with people who insult my intelligence about these movies’ intentions. But EW’s coverage made me wonder if The Help were going to be Mammy Writer: The Movie. It was now a must-see.
Well, contrary to what some have said, The Help isn’t racist as hell. In fact, the only thing racist as hell in The Help is Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. More on her in a second, as she is my secret weapon, the character I’ll be throwing back at those who pretend this movie avoids the “congratulations, White people!” trappings of its genre. She brings the Paul Haggis Crash element to this film, except instead of having a magic racism-curing staircase as Crash had, The Help has a Noble Negro Water Closet.
Which Way Is Up? (coincidentally, both characters have lost everything by the film’s end), Miss Thing is in New York City turning into Samantha Jones from Sex and the City.
That’s right, folks: The bad guy (I mean, girl) wins. Post-comeuppance, the villain returns to commit one final dastardly deed. Let’s talk about this bad girl, an over-the-top figurehead of bigotry played by the consistently horrible Bryce Dallas Howard. She is so extreme she makes the Grand Duke Wizard of the Klan look like Eldridge Cleaver by comparison. Howard is the Statue of Liberty of racism, a symbolic Incredible Hulk zapped with tons of gamma racism. If Howard's villainous Hilly Holbrook had a mustache, she'd twirl it wildly before ripping it off her face and eating it like Cookie Monster. In other words, she is completely unidentifiable as a real human being. Not even the gang of White men who chased me in Hamilton, Ohio, throwing bottles and slurs at me a few years ago were as racist as Hilly Holbrook. In keeping her a caricature, she belongs in the same cardboard box as the characters from Crash; she makes you feel good for not being that racist.
|"I'm a witch! I'm not you!"|
The Help is confused as to whether Holbrook is a comic foil or a serious threat. She’s the butt of a seemingly endless joke about her eating a pie made of Pure T. Shit, but she manages to get people arrested and destroy their livelihoods with false allegations of theft. Hilly gets so many maids dismissed from jobs in Jackson that she should have been crowned Miss FireCracker 1963. She also presents a problem for us as she relates to Skeeter (Emma Stone), the main character of The Help. Hilly and her bitchy friends didn’t turn this way overnight, so Skeeter’s idea to write the book seems more an act of self-promotion than a means of getting some justice. As nasty as Hilly gets, Skeeter still hangs out with her, and even falls for the guy with whom Hilly hooks her up. That last item blows away any notion that The Help is not meant to be seen through Skeeter; this courtship is boring, eats up time, and is a useless way to keep the story on Skeeter rather than the more interesting maids.
Skeeter’s follow-up question “how does it feel to raise White children while your children are at home being raised by someone else?” is left unanswered. To Aibileen’s story, it’s very valid, but to Skeeter’s, it’s just another interview question. I wanted to hear the answer to that question, but The Help doesn’t. Aibileen does note that the White kids who loved their maids as children eventually shat on them when they became adult members of society. This is a plotline worth fleshing out and explaining. Even the maid who is integral to Skeeter’s story, her beloved, missing Constantine, is given no back story besides appearing as Super Mammy in flashback. My depression at the misuse of the great Cicely Tyson was jolted when Tyson looked at the camera with a mix of devastation, anger and hurt after being fired. “Damn, Cicely!” I said to myself. In that moment, she told me so much more than The Help had time to explore.
The Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain. The movie pairs Chastain’s lower class Miss Celia with Spencer’s Sassy maid Minny after Hilly fires Minny for using the White house toilet instead of her Colored outside one during a tornado. I’m surprised Hilly didn’t appear in a window flying on a broom before handing Minny her pink slip. Due to Hilly’s influence, Minny can’t get another job anywhere but at Miss Celia’s. Miss Celia is hated by Hilly, and by extension, the women in Jackson, because, as Minny notes “they think you White trash, Miss Celia.” Miss C. has the ill nana, which led her to marry Hilly’s ex-boyfriend. Minny becomes something of a Magical Negro by way of the Food Network; she helps Miss Celia cook on the down low so Miss Celia can impress her man. What I liked about this subplot was the way it comically handled the class issue. Both Miss Celia and Minny are the town outcasts, but the film doesn’t try to compare Miss Celia’s ignorance of the rules to Minny’s skin color-related troubles. Instead, Minny is constantly correcting Miss Celia, whose bubble-headed naïveté leads her to all manner of societal faux pas.
Skin Game-like comic and satirical potential. When I mentioned my desire to see the Minny and Miss Celia movie instead of The Skeeter Story, I was told that I should go watch 48 Hrs. You can figure that one out for yourselves.
The Help is going to be a huge hit, which means Hollywood will make 6 million more maid movies. Its influence is already being felt in the real world: I have seen three different stories about Southern White women looking for, and being reunited with, the maids who helped raise them. Everybody cried, syrupy music played, and the newscaster narrated the story in hushed tones. I wondered if a) I’d see a story where the maid went looking for her ward and b) if I’d see the found maid slap the Calhoun Shit out of the ward looking for her, saying “you ungrateful heffa, where the hell were you all these years? You’re just looking for me NOW?!” Neither a nor b was going to happen on my TV.
I sat next to an older Black couple at my screening of The Help. The theater was nearly full, with a mixed crowd of old and young, male and female, Black and White. Crammed and uncomfortable, slumping in the second row, the couple stared at the screen with rapt attention. I detected a slight Southern accent from the woman, who occasionally muttered something brief to her husband. I guesstimated they were my parents’ ages, not just from their appearance but from their manner of speech. They sounded like an old married couple, with her comments met simply by her husband’s “um-hmms and yeah’s.” Occasionally, they both would laugh at something comedic, and at one crucial point, the woman gasped along with much of the audience. I heard the faint rustling of a pack of Kleenex during a moment of high drama, with the husband making a sympathetic noise of support. Normally, I don’t pay much attention to who’s sitting next to me at the theater, but whenever I’m that close to the screen, I have to look around on occasion to keep my neck from becoming stiff.
As the credits rolled, the audience broke into enthusiastic applause. The couple next to me did too. Immediately, I wanted to talk to them, to ask them why they felt this film warranted ovation. They were older than me, and their opinions on the period would carry much more knowledgeable weight than mine. How did they feel, and what light could they shed for me? I was momentarily distracted by the person on my right, a teary-eyed teenage girl who suddenly stood up to continue her applause. She looked at me in surprise, her face asking “why aren’t you clapping?” I found myself contemplating the weird look she gave me, sort of a “What the fuck is wrong with you?!” look. When I shook myself from my distraction, I turned back to my desired task: a discussion with my elders.
Unfortunately, they were gone.
It was a fitting end, for like the film itself, I wanted to see The Help through the eyes of the people who would provide me a different perspective than Hollywood wishes to entertain.
"Hi, Hollywood wants to make The Help II: Electric Boogaloo. I'll need to order more Negroes. Oh, and some Kung Pao Chicken! Thanks!"