Salvaging The Help, a film worth watching
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By R Kahendi -
The Melissa Harris-Perry Show
On Saturday morning (yesterday) I watched the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC. The segment of the show that struck me the most was the one during which Harris-Perry and her panel of guests focused their attention on the film, The Help. The discussion was of interest to me because I had read many critiques of the film last year, shortly after it had been released. They had been tremendously negative, and had highlighted many of the film’s flaws. One of them had been the fact that the film hadn't been a historical portrayal of life for black domestic workers and their families. The critics had pointed out that the film glossed over the absolute brutality of racism in the Jim Crow South, and had emphasized that the physical violence and sexual abuse suffered by black women in the homes where they worked received no direct attention. Additionally, they had highlighted the fact that the black men featured in the film tended to be abusive spouses, in contradistinction to the white men, who were either depicted as having no time for domestic dramas or as benevolent patriarchs.
Reexamining the criticism of The Help
On the surface, these critiques were mostly based in fact. But I found myself feeling overwhelmed by them. With such overpowering waves of criticism directed against it, this film had to be absolutely terrible, right? It must have been inherently racist, mustn’t it? But why was the film the recipient of such great acclaim from other quarters? Where did the disconnect lie? Were those who criticized the film getting it wrong, or were who praised it completely clueless about how racial politics played out in the writing of American stories? There was only way to answer these questions: I would have to watch the film. Only then would I be able to decide for myself which of the barbs or roses it deserved.
I finally watched The Help in late January this year, and I have to admit that I enjoyed it for the most part. There were parts that I found absolutely boring, and some of the criticism was on point, but on the whole I was moved by the story. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a historically accurate film, but I do recommend it as a touching story that humanizes domestic workers.
What is the point of film criticism?
When I think back to some of the criticism I have read about The Help, there’s a part of me that’s glad that there are critics who are willing to problematize Hollywood’s latest fare. Like many others, I have been alternately perplexed, bemused, offended and enraged at many of the depictions of minorities or foreign nationals in American cultural production. There is all too often something wrong with the way these folks are portrayed. They tend to be demonized, idealized, or turned into the decorative backdrop for the “real” story. So film criticism does have a valuable role to play in educating audiences.
However, there is also a part of me that is wary about film criticism. This is the part of me that thinks that too much criticism is devoted to talking about films, not as they are, but as they would have been if the critics had made them. I sincerely believe that much of the criticism of The Help falls into this category. So much time has been devoted to talking about what the film does not do and about what it should have done, that whatever it succeeds in doing has been pushed into the background. There are times when this type of criticism is valid: when it educates the public on the holes in particular narratives or ideologies. But the problem with repeating it over and over is that it becomes reified and starts to read like a formula on how films must be made or how screenplays must be written. Where does that leave creativity? Doesn’t it somehow suggest that folks should only write about their “kind”? Doesn’t it also suggest that all stories must be historically accurate? What lover of literature, art, music or film would read this type of criticism again and again without feeling miffed?
I am a black woman living in America, but I am not an African American. If I sat down to write a story about an African American woman, I would be doing so from my standpoint as an African-born black woman. I freely admit that I would not get a lot right about the African American experience. I would be blind to certain subtleties and even to major threads in the rich Black cultural tapestry of America. That would be inevitable. But would it make my story a non-story? Of course not. How about the non-Africans who write about Africans or make films about them? They get it wrong much of the time. I have shaken my head at various depictions, including Karen Blixen's I dreamed of Africa, Storm of X-Men, Hotel Rwanda, The air up there, Ashanti, Congo, Zulu and Coming to America. But does that make these stories pointless? No, it doesn’t. Even in the frustration that I experience watching or reading these depictions, I recognize that they are bringing something to the table. Yes, they should be criticized for their flaws, but they should also be taken on their own terms. Shouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to The Help?
The Black woman as mother figure
I certainly think we should. And I believe that there are some valuable lessons that The Help brings to the table. One of them is the subject of black women raising white children in the bosom of white families. This is what touched me most about the film: the fact that these black women were servants and subject to crude racist hatred and systemic racism, but were still essentially mothers to little white babies. The mother-child relationship is the most fundamental of relationships in any society. From the standpoint of many African cultural traditions, the mother is idealized, almost sacred. The woman who gave you life, at whose breast you suckled, who washed and wiped you, who taught you your first words and watched you take your first steps is the woman you idolize for the rest of your life. She may be marginalized by society and treated as the “lesser” sex, but she is still MOTHER.
The absurdity of racism
So how is it that societies in the American South turned to black women to mother their babies, and then treated them and their families like sub-human outcasts? Some of these white babies actually spoke Black creoles as their first languages. Amazing, isn’t it? So how was it possible for the white women portrayed in the film, most of whom had had black mother figures in their formative years, to grow up and treat the black women who had raised them as if they were nothing? How was it possible for such brutality and violence to coexist with such close intimacy? Why was it okay for a white child to suckle from the breast of a black woman but not okay for him or her to love or marry a black woman or man? Granted, in asking these questions, I was conflating the norms of society in the age of plantation slavery with those in the age of Jim Crow. But there were continuities between the two eras. Ahistorical or not, those were the thoughts that the film brought to my mind. The film actually got me thinking about the absurdity of racism, and its inherent contradictions. It may not have been explicit or thorough in its examination of racism, but it was certainly effective in its subtle poking and prodding at the subject. Many critics seem to forget that most people who watch these films are not scholars in Film Studies or Literary Studies. They watch films for entertainment, and often to briefly escape from their own troubled lives. Consequently, they may actually walk away from deeply flawed films with valuable insights into life.
The film’s redeeming qualities
I didn’t walk away from the film thinking about the black women as extras and the white women as the stars. If anything, the way the story was structured turned the white women’s issues into frivolous side-stories. I have to confess that I was so bored at the clownish, stereotyped roles that were accorded to the white female characters that I busied myself with the ironing when those scenes came on. The white characters were pretty much infantilized and one-dimensional. They were superficial characters with superficial concerns. By contrast, the black women came across as mature and wise women who had experienced and witnessed brutality, and who had gained insight into human nature. Of course, we didn’t get the full story of these black women’s intimate lives with their families. I certainly would have wanted to spend more time in their homes seeing how they lived with their spouses, children and parents in greater detail. But I definitely got the distinction impression that it was black sisterhood that was being highlighted in the film, not the idea that a white woman could speak for black women.
I’m not convinced that Skeeter, the young white female writer in the story, gave Aibileen, Minny and the other black domestic workers their voice. If that was the idea that the screenwriter intended for the audience to take away, then the white-woman-as-spokesperson-for-black-women trope failed miserably. As limited as the portrayals of the black women were, the character of Skeeter was not as well fleshed-out as those of Aibileen and Minny. To me, she actually came across as a plot device inserted into the story to meet whatever expectations the audience had. The audience was not going to be receptive to the stories of black domestic workers unless it was given to them in small, disguised doses. So the writer had to whip up this unbelievably naïve character to play a sentimental role that was really the backdrop to the true story. Maybe I was biased, but that was how I perceived the film.
The film’s flaws
As for the portrayal of black men as violent and abusive fathers and husbands in the film, I agree that that was a problem. The portrayal of black men was not balanced at all. It would have been great if the film had devoted more time to portraying the minister or one of the women’s fathers or brothers or sons. Having said that, it doesn’t seem unusual to me that domestic violence would be an issue in many homes during the era depicted in the film. The same was certainly the case in colonial Africa and in South Africa under apartheid. Generally speaking, men and women who have to deal with racist brutality and systemic racism every single day do not remain untouched by them. Many of them internalize the violence and then take their frustration out on those who are close by: their subordinates at work or in the community, and their families. Additionally, I expect that domestic violence was more acceptable in the era depicted in the film than it is today.
Another of the criticisms of the film was highlighted by the panel on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show. It was the fact that the film turned the black women and their families into passive observers of the major historical events of their time (surrounding racism and civil rights), when they would have been more actively engaged and involved in them. This is definitely a flaw worth highlighting and, more than anything, it emphasizes the fact that the writer was not able to get completely into her characters’ heads. But perhaps, in its way, that is a good thing. One of the things it tells me is that the story was written by a human being with limited insight, not an omniscient being. It reminds me that the writer is not an absolute authority, just a storyteller fumbling around for the right words to say- sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding.
Telling the stories of domestic workers
Watching the Melissa Harris-Perry show, I was thrilled to hear Barbara Young, a national organizer with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance weigh in. Her stance on the film was to point out that, yes, it was flawed, but there was still something worth salvaging from the film. I do agree with her that the film did provide a platform for talking about the experience of domestic workers. I felt that the film humanized domestic workers. Many of my generation had grandparents who worked as domestic servants for British colonials. Furthermore, many of us were raised by domestic workers who stepped in to fill the vacuum left by our working parents. And many of us have grown up to look down upon domestic workers and to abuse, underpay and humiliate them. The irony is inescapable.
For me, The Help actually brought to mind the plight of domestic workers globally through the 20th and 21st centuries. It made it apparent that their efforts were essential to the smooth running of their employers’ households but all too often taken for granted. It also made apparent the sacrifices they and their families had to make to accommodate the often petty whims of their employers. A problematic film it might have been, but it still managed to tell an important story. In saying all this, I am aware that the film, The Help, is based on a novel, and that the novel in question is significantly more problematic than the film. I haven’t read the novel in its entirety; just a few excerpts of it. On the basis of what I have read, I have to say that, if I had chosen to critique the novel, I would probably have found fewer redeeming qualities to emphasize.
This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.