The much-hyped summer blockbuster The Help opened nationwide over the weekend, finishing second at the box office and bringing in $17.5 million. Based on the 2009 Kathryn Stockett novel of the same name, the movie has inspired Internet ire, and for good reason—it shows us the kind of problems that can arise when a film meant to be historical fiction loses touch with the actual history it’s trying to tell.
The Help is set in the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, during the peak of injustice in the Jim Crow South and on the brink of the Civil Rights Movement. Our heroine is Skeeter Phelan, a white, recent college graduate who arrives back to her privileged home life instantly ready to leave it again. Skeeter wants to be a writer and dreams of a job at a publishing company. But she’s rejected from her dream job and is told to reapply after gaining some more experience. She lands a job writing a cleaning advice column at the local newspaper, though her friends and family are more concerned with wondering when she’ll settle down than lauding her accomplishments. In a telling reveal of the extent of Skeeter’s privilege, it becomes clear that she doesn’t actually know how to clean anything. So she enlists the help of Aibileen, her high school friend’s black maid, to help her write the column. Aibileen essentially writes the columns, while Skeeter gets paid for them. And Aibileen’s commission? The pleasure of knowing the cleaning column is finally getting it right.
But Skeeter begins to become upset by the way she sees her well-to-do friends treating their maids and decides to write a book featuring interviews with their point of view—the point of view of the help. Aibileen is the first to join, and all of Jackson’s maids eventually agree to the project. Skeeter publishes the book anonymously and it becomes wildly successful. The book leads to Aibileen being fired; Skeeter lands her dream publishing job in New York City.
The impression is that Skeeter wants to tell the help’s story because of personal ambition, not because she wants to participate in the greater Civil Rights Movement surrounding her. After studying the laws governing the interactions between black and white people in Mississippi, Skeeter tells the black maids she interviews that participating in the book is illegal—the only characters ever in any jeopardy because of the project are the maids, not Skeeter. Skeeter has nothing to lose from her efforts and, in fact, the only thing she seems to give up is her relationship with a boyfriend who registers only about five minutes of screen time.
A number of critics say the film ignores the context of racism, violence, and murder that surrounded the Civil Rights Movement in favor of telling a more positive story about the pretend impact of a book that was never actually written. Relegated to a brief moment of context are the realities of the era: the murder of Emmett Till, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Birmingham church bombing, and the 1963 march on Washington, among other important civil rights figures and events. (Octavia Spencer, who plays black maid Minny, told NPR the movie isn’t a civil rights movie, but a “movie about relationships.”) There’s a shot in which the camera pans over newspaper articles spread out in front of Skeeter; the names of Civil Rights leaders are legible for a moment. And the march on Washington is only mentioned because it’s the reason Skeeter gets the green-light to submit her manuscript: Skeeter’s editor warns her that she should submit a draft while the Civil Rights Movement is still hot, or in other words, before the fad ends and the book is no longer viable. Skeeter nods in agreement, only exasperated by the burden of having to finish her book in three weeks and not by the assumption that the movement could be a passing trend.
The Association of Black Women Historians spoke out against the film, specifically citing the ways in which it “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.” The group also says both the book—which has sold more than three million copies and spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list—and the film turn the real threat of violence and sexual assault to black women in the Jim Crow South into “comic relief.” And the popularity of the film is disturbing, the association says, 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.”
Those claims are evident in the film. While the potential for acts of violence and sexual assault by white men against black domestic workers is an obvious connection for anyone who has studied American history, male characters (and any interactions they might have with black women) are startlingly absent from The Help. As Valerie Boyd of Arts Critic ATL notes, the film’s “focus on women leaves white men blameless for any of Mississippi’s ills.”
“White male bigots have been terrorizing black people in the South for generations,” Boyd writes. “But the movie relegates Jackson’s white men to the background, never linking any of its affable husbands to such menacing and well-documented behavior. We never see a white male character donning a Klansman’s robe, for example, or making unwanted sexual advances (or worse) toward a black maid. Scenes like that would have been too heavy for the film’s persistently sunny message.”
Particularly in light of recently uncovered papers indicating the possibility that civil rights activist Rosa Parks was almost raped while working as a maid, the film does a disservice to history by forgetting and white-washing these kinds of historic realities.
As Nelson George explains in his review of the film for the New York Times, The Help easily fits into a vast legacy of movies that attempt to address the realities of the Civil Rights Movement but instead only create small domestic dramas that buffer the viewer from the real violence and racism of the period. Often central to many of these plots are white protagonists—“to protect viewers, sometimes at profound damage to the historical record, white heroes are featured and sometimes concocted for these movies, giving blacks a supporting role in their own struggle for liberation,” George writes. Aibileen and the other maids ultimately serve as props, as a backdrop for the larger story of a white, affluent woman who finds her relatively mild feminist calling and leaves home for the big city.
The Help wants to be a film about white women and black women coming together to work against injustice. But ultimately it’s too small and too petty a story that is too removed from the real atrocities of the Jim Crow South to be anything other than a vehicle through which an rich, white woman profits from the retelling of the histories and experiences of black women.