Come Oscar time there’s always a movie I grow to hate because it doesn’t deserve all the praise and certainly not the nomination for Best Picture. It’s not the movie’s quality, in many of these cases I love the movie, but people touting it as “original,” “the second coming of cinema” or “revolutionary” make me grow to hate said film. It festers in my head and I start to find faults with it. This year I’ve grown from enjoying a movie to downright hating every single thing about it, and it sure as hell didn’t deserve to be nominated for Best Picture (edging out a far superior film like Drive) and that is…The Help! I wrote an article a few years ago explaining why I didn’t think No Country for Old Men deserved to win Best Picture (and no one listened to me) and this year I’m saying The Help doesn’t even deserve to be nominated! Let me take you on a journey to show why The Help does nothing but reinforce stereotypes about African-Americans while presenting a HIGHLY idealized view of the 1960s.
Just to remind people, in case they’ve forgotten what The Help is about, it’s based on the hugely popular Kathryn Stockett book following a young woman named Skeeter (played in the film by Emma Stone) as she returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi after graduating from college. Unable to find a job in the journalism field she starts to notice the growing racism between her white friends and their Africa-American maids. Skeeter gets the idea to ask one particular maid Abilene (Viola Davis) to tell her the problems involved in being a maid. As Abilene starts to tell of the racism she’s experienced, other maids come forward.
The Help falls into a category of films known as “white guilt movies.” White guilt films are meant to somehow shame their predominant audience, i.e. white audiences, into some type of horror over the African-American experience and most of these movies hearken back to slavery, racism, and/or the Civil Rights movement. Many of these movies also place the burden of “saving” the African-American through the benevolence of a white leading actor or actress. Films like The Green Mile or The Long Walk Home, which is very similar to The Help, are prime examples of these types of movies.
Along with “white guilt” these movies play on a type of audience amnesia, in that people watching these movies somehow forget things like slavery or the Civil Rights movement actually happened and are shocked by the events depicted on the screen. Movies like this play on the shock of hearing a white person call an African-American a racial slur or physically abuse them. I saw The Help in theaters and heard a collective gasp from the mostly older, female audience when Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) refers to Abilene in a derogatory sense. While The Help could easily substitute any oppressed minority in the role (Latin Americans immediately came to mind), this audience was shocked that “people treated others that way!” Apparently no one has gone through elementary school history because the concept of oppressing African-Americans happened “so long ago,” we’re better now.
That’s what I find so frustrating about The Help. The movie is meant to show how far we’ve come, while at the same time showing an idealized version of The Civil Rights where things are simply contained to one neighborhood. Sure we see the assassination of Medgar Evers played out on television but it never sets to reinforce anything simply those African-American leaders who dare to speak out are being assassinated, yet there’s never any threat of violence or fear in the maids of Jackson. Yes there is a scene after Evers’ assassination where Abilene is thrown off a bus and forced to walk home in the dark. The scene is meant to be terrifying yet no one is chasing or threatening Abilene so where’s the fear. In fact the women these maids work for are never physically abusive or spouting racial slurs at them as depicted. In fact at times the white women treat these maids like most snobby rich women would treat any hired help (the separate bathrooms being the only thing). The separation between Abilene and the little white girl she’s raising as the movies events play out are no different than the relationship between Scarlett Johansson and the little boy in The Nanny Diaries!
I’ve studied a great deal of Civil Rights history and the women of The Help seem to get off easy. As mentioned above there’s no physical violence or derogatory language spoken to them on a daily basis, and this was a time and place where lynching’s were still incredibly common! The only physical violence we see is the abusive relationship between maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) and her unseen husband, reinforcing the stereotype of African-American relationships being filled with nothing but domestic abuse. If anything this shows that there’s more to fear in being an African-American who’s married as opposed to being one working for a white woman. Spencer herself is nominated for Best Supporting Actress and has won the Golden Globe. I’m all for her winning but it just continues to propel the stereotype of the Academy Awards themselves that if you’re an African-American playing a stereotypical African-American…you will win an Oscar (see Halle Berry and Denzel Washington)
In fact most racists were white women not unlike Skeeter herself but of course Skeeter’s different! Skeeter has the exact same upbringing as her white friends. She’s raised by a maid more than her mother just like her friends, her mother is racist under peer pressure, yet Skeeter herself is not racist…why is that? Is it because she went to a school in the North where racism was less common? There is never any explanation why out of a town of 3,000 or however many currently resided in Jackson, Skeeter is the ONLY non-racist person there is!
What then makes The Help so “revolutionary” or “original” or even just “amazing.” The movie is good, but it’s not the best. At the end of the day are the maids liberated, has the Civil Rights battle been fought and won in Jackson? No, the maids probably get up and go to work to earn a living no matter how. No one’s life gets better, the maids don’t tell off their white employers and what the hell happened to that one who got accused of stealing and was beaten by police? We see her rotting in jail; I guess she wasn’t that important because she didn’t “write” a book. And no disrespect to Abilene but she didn’t write the book, Skeeter did and I doubt Abilene would go off to have some grand writing position; African-Americans weren’t published authors en masse. There’s never any notion that Minny won’t continue to be a maid (that’s right her job is meant to be fun because she’s working for the hot outcast white girl), and there’s no worry about how Abilene is going to survive without a job.
The Help provides an escapist view of the Civil Rights movement. A moment where you can stand up for your rights, and it’s not important what happens tomorrow because the movie is over. The maids are never liberated, their lives aren’t made better, and the white women may be shamed but shamed into what, certainly not treating their help better. It’s a temporary embarrassment meant to be a significant change. I like The Help, it’s cute and simple, but it is not a Best Picture. It doesn’t tell of any grand themes or show any skill in storytelling. It provides an ideal, and that’s it.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.