By Lisa Boehm, Professor of Urban Studies, Worcester State University.
I have been trying to search for reasons that I am uneasy with the largely passionate, positive response to the book and the film, The Help.
In 2009, I published a non-fiction work of my interviews with African American women who had largely worked as domestics and taken part in the Second Great Migration to the North. About five million women and men left the South for the North between 1940 and 1970, transforming the history of American cities and the nation as a whole. Yes, I am a white woman, and I even have unruly hair like The Help’s Skeeter Phelan. The Schlesinger Library website even referred to me as "the real Skeeter Phelan." (I donated the oral histories from my book to the Schlesinger, which funded the project with its Oral History Grant.) When I read the novel The Help I could not believe how the process of interviewing in the book sounded like what I had done in real life. Yet I am still uneasy with the picture of domestic work and the black southern experience as outlined by The Help. It is incomplete, at best.
The Association of Black Women Historians has written an "Open Letter to Fans of The Help, in which they state:
On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. 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. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism."
I have been wondering if it is possible to portray the kinds of unrelenting violence that southern blacks encountered in the Jim Crow South in a fictional vehicle, either novel or film, which has as entertainment as its primary purpose. A non-fiction book or a documentary seems better suited to the subject matter. So would any novel or film draw the kind of criticism some are heaping on The Help? Is it this particular subject that cannot be well done in a fictional genre, or is it just this particular story that rubs some people the wrong way?
I understand the need to work through important themes, emotions, and issues in the past via fiction. Certainly we have an endless stream of films and novels related to the Holocaust, World War II, 9/11 and other tension-filled historical moments. Yet with these stories, we are better able to fit them into the framework of history that we already know. Saving Private Ryan is not our only exposure to the history of WWII; we add the movie to what else we know. Unfortunately, many Americans are not aware that until the late 20th century, MOST African American women working outside of the home for wages labored in domestic settings or related service jobs in hotels, restaurants, and office buildings. In domestic work, African American women came to interact on a daily basis with the white families that employed them, and the interactions were filled with complications. White families often thought of their employees as family; black women sometimes formed friendly relationships with their employers but they rarely extended this feeling of "family" without great trepidation. I would bet that the white women crying in the film around me when I saw it on the opening afternoon were not rushing home and ordering my (or anyone else’s) book on domestic workers to learn more. We leave The Help thinking we know the whole picture. But that is a mistake. There is far more to this story to know.
Those who have not read The Help will not know that the novel’s white characters are portrayed with a thick dialect, represented by broken English and spelling changes like substituting "Law" for "Lord." The characters frequently say "reckon," a word I never encountered in my oral history work. White characters, who presumably would have southern accents as well, were given no such spelling changes. The white characters are also drawn in a quite silly fashion, and they look even more flat and silly in the film, juxtaposed against the weighty acting done by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in their roles as African American maids. If the majority of whites are silly and ignorant, it lessens the serious nature of the racism they espouse, and distances a white audience from this kind of prejudice. We often find a sort of simpering, slapstick South portrayed in mainstream films, a world of honeysuckle and sweetened ice tea that does not resemble the world today, South or North. Thus it is easy to leave the film and say, "Boy, I am glad things are not like that now. We have certainly come a long way. I cannot believe things used to be like that." After the death of Medgar Evers in the film, the tension of the film is quickly cut by a funny vignette where we see the maid Minnie vacuuming a stuffed bear. The laughter in the theater showed how quickly the violence could be worked through, and how much we wanted to move away from that uncomfortable feeling. Maybe we need to sit a little bit longer with uncomfortable emotions.
The pain of the discrimination faced by a generation of women who could often only find work in domestic settings is still felt today. Many of these women still live among us. They have passed stories of their pain to their children. Seek out the searing artwork of Willie Cole, whose mother and grandmother labored as domestics. Keep reading. If The Help whetted your appetite, try to learn more. I am seeking a book group that would follow up their reading of The Help with my own book, Making a Way out of No Way: African American Women and the Second Great Migration (Mississippi, 2009) and see what they think. What do we not see in the novel or the film?
Lisa Krissoff Boehm Phd is author of Making a Way out of No Way: African American Women and the Second Great Migration (Mississippi, 2009), Popular Culture and the Enduring Myth of Chicago (Routledge, 2004) and co-editor of The American Urban Reader: History and Theory. She teaches urban studies and directs the honors program at Worcester State University.