Well now that all the awards have been handed out and all the hosannas articulated, let’s talk about The Help.
Octavia Spencer and Olivia Davis are great actors who held their own and rose above and beyond the call to deliver excellent performances.
Employment in the service of others is no crime, no sin, and should not be looked upon with derision or loathing. Domestic labor is honest, honorable work that is often under appreciated by employers and society and is nothing about which to be ashamed.
Two often overlooked performance in this movie, those of Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson. Those two women have more acting chops in their pinky fingers than 98% of the actors working today have in their whole bodies.
Now, for The Help
First a glossary of terms.
Magic Negro: The Magical Negro, or magical African-American friend, is a supporting stock character in American cinema, who, by use of special insight or powers, helps the white protagonist. … The Magical Negro is typically but not always “in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint,” often a janitor or prisoner. He has no past; he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist. He usually has some sort of magical power, “rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters.” He is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is “closer to the earth.”The Magical Negro serves as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. Although he has magical powers, his “magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character.” “These powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation.” It is this feature of the Magical Negro that some people find most troubling. Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, he is still ultimately subordinate to whites. He is also regarded as an exception, allowing white America to “like individual black people but not black culture.”
Mammy: The mammy archetype is perhaps one of the best-known archetypes of African American women. She is often portrayed within a narrative framework or other imagery as a domestic servant of African descent, generally good-natured, often overweight, very dark skinned, middle aged, and loud. The mammy was usually depicted in a negative manner and portrayed as lacking all of the sensual and sexual qualities that an attractive woman would have. This de-eroticism of the mammy would in turn imply that the white wife, and by extension the white family, was safe. … Historically, the media have portrayed the mammy in a stereotypical fashion, often being submissive towards her owners (during slavery) and to her employers (after emancipation.) She also displays aggressiveness towards other members of the African American community, particularly to males. … When other contemporary mammies emerged, they usually retained their occupation as a domestic and exhibited these physical feature changes; however, their emotional qualities remained intact. These contemporary mammies continued to be quick witted and remained highly opinionated.
Thank you Wikipedia
If The Help were made in a year with, say, 17 other major Hollywood movies starring black actors, would it be problematic? This query is a question I wish the reader to keep in mind as this article proceeds.
The Help is about a young white woman, freshly graduated from Ole Miss, coming home to start her career as a writer. She has an idea to write the true story of maids in Jackson, Mississippi. She then enlists the help of Aibbie and later Minnie in her endeavor and through their quirky yet poignant tales of domestic life, she publishes her book, which becomes a best seller; socks it to the queen bee mean girl of her social circle; and gives her mother the will to fight cancer. All these things happen while she discovers in herself the strength and courage to be a success in on her own terms.
It’s chick flick, a feel-good movie, a comedy for the most part with just enough gloom to give it some gravitas. It’s not Citizen Kane nor is it All About Eve nor was it meant to be. However, it has been forced to bear a weight too heavy for so light a movie.
(This you first cue to think about that question I asked at the beginning.)
Even giving the movie justly deserves props for the acting, the cinematography, the plotting, the editing, etc., still an unease persist when watching this story about black maids and white employers set in the south in 1963. The characters are a little too … too. The maids are a little too good, Miss Hilly is a little too mean, Skeeter longs a little too much for Constantine, Elizabeth is a little too distant from her daughter, Constantine is a little too noble, and the men in the film are too distant from the story. The only thing that isn’t a little too … too is depth. Could have been a little deeper, even for light summer comedy.
Aibbie and Minnie are too docile. This is particularly troubling in the character of Minnie. In one scene, she is saying how she is going to kill have to Miss Hilly. In another scene, she is telling Skeeter how she had better tell her story and tell it right. The toilet-flushing scene springs to mind and of course the infamous pie scene. However, in other scenes in the movies, Minnie is admonishing her daughter to show extreme deference when in white folks’ kitchens. In another, she is abused by her husband. In the majority of screen time in Miz Celia’s employ, she is deathly afraid of being caught cooking by her employer’s husband. In a scene between these two women, the ridiculous attempts to be sublime when Celia (a woman too scared to tell her husband that she hired a maid), while tending bruising on Minnie face administered Minnie’s husband Leroy, tells Minnie that Minnie should “hit him over the head with a skillet and tell him to go straight to hell.”
If the purpose of this scene is to show the strength of Celia, it rings hollow in light of the fact that in addition hiding Minnie, she also hides miscarriages and runs after acceptance from the Jackson Junior League like a wolf runs after a pork chop.
Aibbie, until her confrontation scene, continually puts herself in the role of suffering saint. She soothes Mae Mobley’s crying, she accepts Elizabeth’s admonitions and advises her fashion choices, and she endures Hilly’s cruelty. Her only act of defiance is telling her story to Skeeter and even then, one feels this act to more of a service to Miss Skeeter than an act of revolution.
Important to add, the courage to confront Hilly only comes after Aibbie is threatened with losing the privilege of raising Mae Mobley. Her son was killed and she did not confront his employer but take away the little white child and she becomes an Amazon.
Hilly is probably the most honest character, with regard to the actual way that many employers to this day think, or in some cases don’t think, about their employees. She is also the personification of one of the most often cited problems with the film. She considers “the help” to be background actors in the movie of her life, props to be used to further her story, and plot vehicles with which to drive home her point of view. When soulless things are no longer of use or will not work in the way intended, you discard and/or destroy them. This is what Miz Hilly Holbrook does; she categorizes and discards the refuse.
Let us not forget our hero, Miz Skeeter. She is the cool one, the one with whom we the audience should identify and applaud. Unlike her friends in the Junior League, Skeeter goes to college and graduates and wants a career and stands up to men and pursues noble goals like truth, and loves on her terms, and exposing hypocrisy. We cheer for her when she dresses down her date, hope for her when she applies for her job at the paper, cry for her when she learns the truth about Constantine. She is egalitarian, often preferring to spend her time with “the help,” to emote with “the help,” to expose the truth of “the help.” By walking the road savior-saint who sacrifices her position in order to lift up the down trodden, she is transformed from child crusader to fully actualized hero and is set to begin her life’s quest and slay all dragons that lie in her way.
She makes me feel all tingly just thinking about her.
I have to interject here. When this movie came out, more than one of my pigmently-challenged friends asked me to see this movie with them. I declined, at first for legitimate reason as it came out at a hectic time in my life but later out of fear of just what this movie was about and how it would handle its subject matter. Funny thing is, the more reasons (and then excuses) I gave, the more insistent my friends became that I see the film and that I see it with them. Somehow my presence was necessary in order them to really see the movie. I would love Miz Skeeter and I would admire the maids just as they did and by doing so, I would validate the film and their love of the story somehow.
I would watch the film weeks after its debut and with my nephew.
I should also say here that my grandmother was a live-in maid and cook and that my mother did days work most of her working life. Their stories of the families for they worked were funny, outrageous, and infuriating. In the case of my mother, sometimes they were peppered with her quitting before she would take a stick to the lady of the house. They, nor any of the other women in our family circle, were long-suffering Aibbie or multiple-personalities Minnie.
As soon as the movie came out, the critics jumped. Melissa Harris-Perry did not wait to get out of the theater and tweeted a scathing review during her actual viewing. Entire websites popped up dedicated to the deconstruction of The Help, the taking to task of the many tones of Mammy highlighted in the film, and how the maids, by letting their stories change Skeeter, let loose their “magic negro.”
Were the criticisms valid?
For the most part yes. However I must say that some did seem a little over the top, just a little. The problem with Mammy, no matter how noble she may be, is that she has been and can be an overpowering archetype of a perverted perfection to be expected by the majority to come from the minority. A definition of other that disempowers black women by demanding that the black woman willingly, sacrificially funnel her power into the white woman. The act is seen as a holy thing that makes the white woman whole and the black woman a saint, when in reality such a practice can only make the black woman a victim and the white woman a parasite.
This is not a happy thing. This narrative is a thing that black women have to fight every day, and when this unhappy thing is dressed up pretty and sold at $12 a view as a happy thing, black women tend to go a teeny, tiny bit nuclear. And as with any explosion, you can hurt some of the very people you are trying to help. Women of color who work, or have worked, in the domestic trades can be made to feel less than, can be made to feel unappreciated, can be made to feel like they are not whole. This thing is not just a hurtful thing; this thing is a sin. Too many women did suffer all the indignities and dangers that Melissa Harris-Perry has outlined in her interviews on the subject, and they did so knowing the score. They should never ashamed of their sacrifice and we should never allow ourselves to be ashamed of them. Without them, there is no us.
And that I think is the defining problem with any movie that bases character and plot on the stereotypical and plays to the pat answers and predictable questions of an unexamined life. Cardboard characters and hackneyed narrative that evoke all the right emotions pavlovian style. It’s junk food for soul. We feel full but are malnourished. We never are questioned or uneasy or in any way uncomfortable or disquieted by this movie. Throughout it, we feel safe, righteous, comfortable and far too familiar. We laugh when we are supposed to laugh, we cry when we are supposed to cry and feel triumphant as Addie walks away at the end with her head high, unemployed, ineligible for social security, and without prospects.
There’s a happily ever after for ya.