This week, The Help opened in over 2500 theaters across the country. The film tells the story of a young white woman, Skeeter Phelan (played by Emma Stone), and her relationship with two black maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) during Civil Rights era America in early 1960s, and is based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett. And make no mistake, the film has been well-received by critics and is already as big a hit as its source material. According to DHD, the film is estimated to gross $32 million since its Wednesday opening.
As a writer, I’m often inspired by stories of people who are able to overcome the odds and achieve success in the publishing world. The Help has one such story: Stockett was rejected by over 60 agents before one agreed to represent her, and now her debut novel has been published in 35 countries and three languages. It’s sold five million copies and has spent more than a 100 weeks on the The New York Times Best Seller list.
I don’t have a problem with Stockett and I’m happy for her success and all but … naaaaah, son. She writes the black characters’ dialogue in a stereotypical “Negro” dialect. I know Stockett is a published author and I, currently, am not, but most writers know that writing characters’ dialogue in dialect is a big no-no. Grammar Girl says, “In Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell uses nonstandard spellings for the speech of blacks while using standard spelling for whites even though the speech of both groups is phonetically very similar. [It was] typical of white Southern writers of her day [to] employed dialect to reinforce the erroneous belief that blacks are inferior—that their speech is so bad it can’t even be spelled properly.” And to say she was trying to be “authentic” begs the question of why, then, the book virtually ignores the major political, social, and cultural themes of the era.
Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry spoke on the messages The Help delivers on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, saying:
The issues that face African-American women were not kind of Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi/Mean Girls behavior. That’s not what it was. It was rape. It was lynching. It was the burning of communities. What this movie does, in 2011, is it completes the work that happened and started in 1923 when the Daughters of the American Confederacy, along with Sen John Williams from Mississippi, found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue of Mammy in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, which had just been dedicated in 1922. This is the same Senate that refused to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. In other words, a Senate that allowed black men to be lynched without federal oversight, but had the time to pass a bill that said we could erect a statue to Mammy. Now this is not granite and it’s not on federal land, but it is the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives and the pain, the anguish, the rape, the lynching that they experienced. And for that reason, it’s not artistic, it’s ahistorical. And it’s deeply troubling.
The Association of Black Women Historians even issued an open letter to fans of The Help:
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. 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.
Y’all want to believe the characters Skeeter and Aibileen were hang gliding over the ocean at sunset while holding hands. That’s not what it was.
It’s also troubling to me that so many black people want to see (and are vehemently defending) this film, too. “Is it [okay] that I want to see The Help?” one of my Twitter buddies asked on his timeline.
"Just make sure to use the cinema’s colored entrance," I replied, “and don’t ogle any white women.”
I can at least stomach our people’s desire for a new Tyler Perry flick—for as coontastic as his films generally are, they’re the lesser of two evils as they at least give a stage for a black voice to be heard. But something like The Help, I just can’t get behind. (I have similar misgivings about The Blind Side, a film in which a white woman “jokingly” threatens to castrate a black youth. Just like that film, I fully expect The Help to clean up come awards season.)
I saw one point of view over at New Wave Feminism that expressed approval of The Help's release and success. The reason? “[B]ecause these are discussions we need to have. America is going to have a white savior complex no matter what, and we're only somewhat willing to discuss this problematic national trend on the back of huge Hollywood 'hits' like this.”
Maybe she’s right. What do you think? Have you seen The Help or read the novel upon which it’s based? What are your thoughts on this entire issue? Let me know below.