THE HELP: A SATAN’S SANDWICH?

September 15, 2011 § 4 Comments

THE HELP: A “Satan Sandwich?”    

I read the book The Help last year and have seen the movie now twice.  I’ve read at least 13 film reviews (from the New York Times and the Rolling Stone to the Christian Science Monitor and the Hollywood Reporter) as well as several academic responses (see the rather strident statement from the Association of Black Women Historians at http://www.abwh.org/ ) and innumerable comments from bloggers. From a term used recently by Representative Emanuel Cleaver regarding the August debt deal, it seems that The Help has created a “satan sandwich” of its own.

Despite all of the laments about stereotypes and the question about whether whites can write about black experience (check out the 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Peterkin at http://www.virginia.edu/woodson/courses/hius324/peterkin.html) and the creation of two new magical negro characters (see The Rumpus blog below for an illuminating description), I  decided I like “The Help.” I appreciate the struggle of the director to create a film on the subject of “help” in the 1960s.  It would be controversial from any point of view.  I’ve been looking at the issues of the impact of African American domestics on the white children they raised in the blog at www.justlikefamily.wordpress.com.  I hope to open discussion about this complex and sometimes perplexing relationship and invite the biological children of the domestics to weigh in on what it was like to have their mother raise white children.

I am also a filmmaker, a white woman who, in the 1990s, worked with black people (see www.sharedhistory.org) in the making of a documentary about families descended from the enslaved people who were owned by my ancestors.  After a 300 year relationship, some of us continue to stay in touch with each other.  Many of oral histories and interviews I did were with people without high school degrees, who lived in rundown shacks or trailers on a country road, near a town where there were few opportunities in the 1960s but to work for white people.  Even, today, they speak in a Gullah-like dialect that I sometimes cannot understand.  Interviewing these particular African Americans was fraught with problems causing a lot of confusion for all of us.  There were many misunderstandings but most of us wanted Shared History to be made and continued our struggle to write a script and shoot interviews.    

With these comments in mind, I wanted to provide some excerpts from a few of the reviews and responses that I read that I thought were provocative, compelling and informative.  

From Atlanta magazine, we learn that Andrew Young screened the film privately to a group of his friends.  According to the magazine, as the lights came up, Young’s voice broke as he addressed his guests: “Some of you here tonight may be too young to recall this period. But almost everybody here has a grandmama, an auntie, or a relative who lived through this.” Young added, “It’s really not over. This film has done a wonderful job of opening a dialogue that lets you know that having one man in the White House is not an answer to the problems we’ve faced all our lives.”

One of the academic organizations that responded to the film is the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH). “An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help” insists that “The Help…. distorts, ignores, and trivialized the experiences of black domestic workers.  We are specifically concerned about the representations of blacks and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism….In the end The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities.  Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.”

Leonard Pitts at the Miami Herald asks what might explain his own irresolute feelings about the film.  “I suspect it traces to nothing more mysterious than the pain of revisiting a time and place of black subservience.  And perhaps, the sting of an inherited memory….I wonder if…folks understand even now, a lifetime later, that women [African American maids] did not exist simply as a walk-on character in a white person’s life drama, that she was a fully formed human being with a life, and dreams and dreads of her own.  It is Kathryn Stockett’s imperfect triumph to have understood this and seek to make others understand it, too.  [However], ‘The Help’ has been beset with a certain amount of scorn from some African-Americans unseduced by its story of black maids and their white employers in Jackson, Mississippi, in that pregnant year 1963….Though the literati have a valid point (stereotyping), the criticism of The Help strikes me otherwise as more reflexive than felt.  Stockett told the story of a white misfit bonding with a black maid and helping her find her voice in a society that had rendered her mute.  If it is not a black power manifesto, well, neither is it ‘Birth of a Nation II.’”

In an essay forwarded by a friend in New York, African American writer, lecturer, historian and activist, Michael Henry Adams (Harlan, Lost and Found) writes “Yet some black cultural pundits still suggested that this film, in tradition of Imitation of Life or the Little Foxes, merely perpetuated a host of old harmful stereotypes…so I worried that the ‘Satan sandwich’ of black servitude, so familiar to us, would be sugarcoated and trivialized beyond both recognition or utility.”

In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis, writes that the director “invests this cautious, at times, bizarrely buoyant, movie with the gravity it frequently seems to want to shrug off.”

Roxane Gay of The Rumpus blog offers a perceptive analysis of black characters from Hollywood through the decades.  “Hollywood has long been enamored with the magical negro—the insertion of a black character into a narrative who bestows upon the protagonist the wisdom they need to move forward in some way as Mathew Hughey [maybe originating from Spike Lee] defines the phenomenon in a 2009 Social Problems article.  The [magical negro] has become a stock character that often appears as a lower class, uneducated black person who possesses supernatural or magical powers.  These powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites…into competent successful and content people with the context of the American myth of redemption of salvation.”  (See:  Ghost, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Unbreakable, Robin Hood (1991), the Secret Life of Bees, The Green Mile, and Corinna, Corinna.  [Others include Places in the Heart (Danny Glover), To Kill a Mockingbird (Estelle Evans as Calpurnia), The Sound and the Fury (Ethel Waters as Delsie), An Imitation of Life, The Defiant One (Sidney Poitier), Sydney Poitier, again, in Lilies of the Field, The Long Walk Home (Whoopi Goldberg) and most well-known, Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind].

A responder to this Rumpus posts asks “I find myself wondering what is ‘wrong’ with all the people who loved the book and the movie (and are any of them Black?).  Are they all racists?  …I’m just curious, sociologically, historically, and psychologically, etc…what would constitute a role for a Black person in a book or film that wasn’t a ‘magical negro’ if they have a value system or behavior or attitude or words that impact others positively, who happen to be white.”

The Rumpus goes onto to say that “The movie is emotionally manipulative but in a highly controlled way.  The Help provides us with the deeply sanitized view of the segregated south in the early 1960’s….Her depiction of race are almost fetishistic unless they are downright insulting.  She caricatures black women, finding pieces of truth and genuine experience and distorting them to repulsive effect.  She makes a very strong case for writers strictly writing what they know, not what they think they know or know nothing about.”

A Rumpus responder says that, “Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the book and movie have done well.  Things that make white people feel good (or less bad) about the real impact of racism tend to draw more positive attention than things that try to portray reality.

Another comment from a Rumpus reader—an African American woman—said she actually enjoyed the book. “I feel at times people are so quick to criticize books and movies that are ‘historical fiction.’  Finding fault in issues that should have been addressed but weren’t addressed, but its fiction ….Both the movie and book give a glimpse of how life was during a certain time period for both black women and white women.”  She goes on to say that “Stockett didn’t want to try writing a book from the view point of the maid.  She herself even says that she doesn’t presume to think she knew what it felt like to be a black woman in the south in that 1960s…There are many educated black women that read this book and enjoyed the story.  There are black women who grew up in the South during this time period who were the help or their mothers were the help and enjoyed the book because there was something that they could identify with.”

Another comment from The Rumpus site: “My mother grew up in the 50s and was raised by a black maid who she loved much more than her own rather hateful mother.  I’m guessing some of the middle-aged women  you saw in your theater—‘reminiscing about the good old days’—were remembering the only women who ever set an example for them, not yearning for their own water fountains.

From the New York Times piece, Dangerous White Stereotypes, comes, “It is unfair to the filmmakers and cast to expect a work of fiction to adhere to the standards of authenticity we would want for a documentary.  But we also recognize that previous new works of art tackle the Civil Rights era, and what people coming of age in the 21st century learn about this era often stems from fictive rather than non fictive sources.”

In a letter to the editor in the New York Times, in response to the editorial mentioned above, a writer says, “Shouldn’t we use a film like The Help to talk about how racism can engulf an entire culture and ruin lives in the process? Defining the problem as one of good and bad people only serves to create fissures that get in the way of talking about how racist practices harm us all.  This was what The Help helps us to see.  It is a far stronger statement against racism than many critics have acknowledged.”

Blogger April Scissors review, Cease and DaSista, tells us that,  [The Help] is a worthy piece of entertainment….but ‘The Black maid/slave/servant-white “employer’ narrative is so convoluted, rich in history and meaning, that it is impossible for one post to encompass it all.  There is the narrative itself, both as book and film; there is personal narrative of the author, Kathryn Stockett, whose wealthy Jackson, Mississippi family employed their Black maid growing up; there is the south’s nostalgia for the antebellum past; there’s also Hollywood’s general obsession with whitewashing history.  Of course, all of that can be summed up by simply acknowledging that the commercialized mainstream media culture is only able to address the United States’ racist pasts, racial tension, and racial  inequality if it absolves white guilt/complicity, valorizes whiteness through history, mythologizes that history, or ignores historical accuracy all together.  To eclipse that history with something like The Help is an admittance of guilt and the need to cover up.  The more we see these stories where only one bad white person brought harm to others, we can not only distance ourselves from the past and from the truth but also become complacent with the seeming progress of today.

The Christian Science Monitor’s reviewer concludes that “I would defend The Help, simplistic though it is, against the charge some have leveled against it for being patronizing.  It’s true that, by framing the maid’s stories through Skeeter’s lens, the film’s simplicity over values the historical contribution of whites to the civil rights movement.  But this film is a far cry from, say, ‘Mississippi Burning,’ which made white FBI agents into civil rights heroes.

In The Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt rolls out the usual complaints voiced in many other reviews that the characters are facile, the accents are inappropriate, the movie making weak, and that Skeeter is naïve [wasn’t that the point?]. But one blog response complains, “What a jaded, look-at-me-I-am-so-over-all-this-aren’t-you view of a wonderful movie.  The only racism I saw in the movie was what was intended to be portrayed as racism.  And for those who think it’s racists for black actresses to be in a movie like this, you’re confused.  Should we ignore what came before and have everyone in any historical context speaking the [q]ueen’s English?”

In a review the book, Jessie Kunhardt, The Huffington Post, says, “The Help is about something.  That is, something real.  Something that matters.  Most of all, something that matters to women….”

On the other hand, Dyane Jean Francois of The Huffington Post Entertainment section supplies us with “How The Help Failed Us.”  She complains that “Minnie is a  ‘sassmouthin’ Mammy who ‘lah to fry chicken’ and makes farcical facial expressions because you know Black folks of that era were all “slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

Another view of accents come from the New York Times article by Janet Maslin, “…the author “renders black maids’ voices in thick, dated dialect.”   The Rumpus offers that “The Help” uses “excessive, inaccurate…dialect…The over-exaggerated dialect spoken by the maids evokes cowed black folk shuffling through their miserable lives singing Negro spirituals.”

I believe that this reviewer insults many of us Southerners today—black and white.

The accents in the film are, indeed, all over the place, strong in some places, hardly there at other times, changing throughout the film.  And as far as being dated, well, wasn’t the film set in a different era—50 years ago?  The white accents were particularly grating to me—sugar coated and high-pitched like birds.  As a white Southerner, I could be considered “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” by many outside of the South.  My South Carolina low-country grandmother spoke to her low-country maid, who was a descendant of one of the enslaved families my ancestors owned before the Civil War, in a language I could barely understand and used terms associated with black dialect that seemed from another time.  My mother continues to do so.  Black dialect from many eras is part of our language today. I hear many whites—including myself—who use words, phrases and body language that came from black dialects and behaviors of the past and present.

Francois quotes actress Octavia Spencer on her role as Minnie. “I think this movie transcends the time period that it’s portraying.  If this project makes us go into our daily lives and makes us view those who facilitate our lives—whether it’s you personal assistant, you gardener,  your cleaning lady, whoever—if  you aren’t treating them with a level of respect, then  hopefully after seeing this movie you will understand the importance of that.”    

David Denby in The New Yorker writes  “The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, is in some ways, crude and obvious, but it opens up a broad new swath of experience on the screen, and parts of it are so moving and well acted that any objections to what’s second-rate seem to matter less as the movie goes on.  Stockett shrewdly popularized her subject for her audience. The Help is a morally serious and touching, but it has a goosey, gossipy quality, and a heavy dose of villainy, leading to an unpersuasive outcome.”

The Rolling Stone unexpectedly gave The Help a positive review.  Peter Travers writes that “The Help, a deeply touching human story filled with humor and heartbreak, is rare in any movie season, especially summer.  That’s what makes ‘The Help’ an exhilarating gift.  It could have been a disaster.  Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel riles a few critics.  The gall of Stockett, a white woman from Jackson, Mississippi, to think she could get inside the heads of black maids serving white folks during the 1960s…..but her book…touched a raw nerve that led to bestsellerdom and frank admission from Stockett about how she could never truly understand what it felt like to be a black women in Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights movement.  ‘“But trying to understand,”’ Stockett wrote, ‘“is vital to our humanity.’”

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§ 4 Responses to THE HELP: A SATAN’S SANDWICH?

  • Frank Martin says:

    I’m only writing specifically in consideration of a particular review by Prof. Valerie Boyd, one associated with the perspectives of the Association of African American Women Historians concerning the film “The Help”. My claim is that Prof. Boyd’s instantiation of opinion on this work has a mildly disturbing inaccuracy…the consent of the domestics depicted in the film to have their histories related by the Ms. Skeeter character is NOT at all inexplicable….they consent collectively as a consequence of the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ murder in Jackson and Aibileen’s ( Viola Davis’ character) response to an invocation by the minister of her church to “be courageous”. They participate in the project to give a voice to their experiences and to represent the realities of oppression in their particular circumstances..which heretofore they had been intimidated from and fearful of doing..this is am important transformation,based on Medgar Evers courage and sacrifice. I agree that there are issues raised in the film that deal with the reality of attempting to sustain a social life and dealing with intimate friends one has known all of one’s life contrasted with developing a personal social conscience and seeing the consequences of daily, unspeakable inequities (particularly the logistics of using something as essential as a toilet).. for the Ms. Skeeter character. Like Skeeter…most individuals in the South who construed their identities as “white” and who recognized the injustice of discrimination were to some extent silenced by friends, family, siblings and social commitments!

    There is simply far more nuance in the movie, despite its flaws, than Prof. Boyd’s review allows.. and..even…a mildly unbalanced opinion in either direction, pro or con (representing a commercial film intended less as art than as an opportunistic exploration of something previously left undiscussed, shown as something that ought to generate a sense of social outrage) seems somewhat naive in the instance of a film of this type…the principal audience for this film, as a Hollywood vehicle, is still primarily Caucasian American women..a large and lucrative constituent audience…and it is a commercial rather than a truly artistic venture….its business-based, capitalistic, bottom-line motivating interest, is NOT social activism nor is it primarily intended to engage some kind of transformative consciousness). I am suggesting that commercial films must be assessed within a proper framework…this film is NOT intended to to do the work of challenging any of the stereotypes standard to the American construction of how African-American domestics may be perceived or represented and, moreover, the “sassy” Minny (Octavia Spencer’s character), who is brutalized at home and who takes revenge by creating a health hazard is a crucial part of the film and is, in many ways, an absolutely horrible example of strategic revenge extraction, it is unfortunate that this kind of crude representation of an African-American female character is to be so widely disseminated. If the film had had any intention of a “positive” “racially-informed” message, which clearly is just not a part of the agenda considered by the film makers in any truly meaningful way, then it would have treated many subjects and characters differently.

    There are subtle links between the characters Skeeter and Hilly as well that allude to the pressures of bigotry and racist attitudes both in the indirect resistance Skeeter manifests by refusing to cite the toilet initiative in the Jr. League newsletter, and Hilly’s insidious thinly veiled threat when she states to Skeeter that if some people saw Skeeter reading the Mississippi racial codes as “real” racists, they could extract a price from Skeeter..So the dangers and realities of Southern living are quite well represented…and the reality is that African-American talents were consistently exploited by whites without credit or acknowledgement because offering the acknowledgment would endanger the African-Americans as a threat to the status quo (specifically Aibileen’s informed responses to the questions in the cleaning column Skeeter undertakes to write with no experience of cleaning).

    All I’m pointing out is that although the review cited may be correct in the political thrust of its message, it too is problematic and this is an assessment of a commercial film and for which the primary concerns are monetary NOT artistic or socially transformative. Should we expect a work of this category to provide the social and cultural messages needed to transform our society?… or MUST those messages come from the conversations (that a work like this has) stimulated (in this instance)? This is a film made largely by and for people who still consider themselves to be “white”…that is to say, people who accept racial categorization (now countered by most reliable anthropological and biological authorities) as authoritative, justifiable, and authentic…that is to say as a “truth”! Is there any surprise in the reality of its being dissatisfying to other non-constituent audiences (especially those with conflicting “race-based” counter-narratives)? I don’t think so…and if respective constituent groups want this kind of story told differently…then they may be forced to confront the realities of doing such work for themselves…..this could add to the integrity and depth of the shared conversation….

    Frank Martin

  • I am an old white veteran of the civil rights movement, but only as a foot soldier, certainly not in leadership. Still the fact that I am white and feel generally positively toward the film The Help gives me pause, when so many black women find objections. I find that generally when opinions fall that way on a matter, the African American opinion is the correct one. But I am unconvinced on this issue.

    I do think the film like the book is directed toward whites, but not even because it is a commercial venture,though that is true, but because it was written by a white person about white responses to the issue in the past. I don’t believe the author was writing a story about African Americans, except as this was a moral issue for the white protagonist. And that is a perfectly acceptable goal for a writer. It is perfectly legitimate for the African American women to be background for the white woman’s struggle. Just as the racially opposite goal and characterization would be for another writer.

    I think the major necessary role of whites in the ongoing and very much unfinished civil rights struggle is to teach our own, and in that sense, the film really does exhort white people to get a spine and speak up! It is easier for the ordinary white person who believes, as the best of high schools today pretty much teach, that all that bad old stuff is over (which it isn’t), it is easier for such a person schooled in this way to see that racial issues still exist, when they are shown a somewhat more exaggerated time and place. (I agree that “bad old stuff” is pretty much glossed over and swept under the rug in school today. It was in my son’s very nice suburban high school in the 90’s.) To my delight, I heard white people say after the film “oh, I never thought of how that would sound to an African American. Sad to hear, but if the message somehow gets thru! “Examine your assumptions that you have thought pass muster, Mr. or Miss White Person. We aren’t finished yet!” If only that message gets thru, then the film will have been worth while.

    I did not perceive that the film made Skeeter into a heroine of the civil rights struggle (that was the African American women, clearly. They were taking the risk, as Evers death demonstrated)Skeeter did the right thing, more or less, although there is no indication she then enlisted herself in the movement. She was trying to leave the situation and go north in fact – which wasn’t the kingdom of heaven either, nor is it still! This isn’t a white heroine and leader of the civil rights movement! Nor did I think it stereotyped “the help” judging from the working class white people among whom I grew up. It was a different time that many of the film’s critics do not even remember as adults. It is also difficult for me to understand how someone could view this film and miss the fact that the heroines here are the black women. To me, that is simply obvious.

    The film for me carried the message, white people, the ball you should be playing is in your own court. What are you doing to help and to inform YOURSELVES (I capitalize for emphasis only) because that is the minimum that we whites should be doing today. The bare minimum. We can help with the larger movement wherever possible. But we all, as white people, should be reading history and current happenings, informing ourselves, telling our white brothers and sisters what we read as much as we can get them to listen to. Especially if we did not have close contact with African Americans in youth, we need to make an effort to educate ourselves. I have been reading for 50 years in this area, and still every book I pick up I learn things that blow me away. And fortunately, as dissatisfied as I am with progress made, I encounter white people who either have changed attitudes they previously held or are right in the middle of changing attitudes. I admit this always surprises me, but I do find it more often than I expect. So we as white people and as a group are just starting and we can’t afford to give up because we are all in this together.

  • Jim Mustin says:

    I had a hard time reading The Help. It struck way too close to home. My mother was raised in the old plantation style with lots of black servants. At my mother’s wedding, one of the women who had raised my mother told my father, “Miz Louise is a fine woman, but she don’t know how to boil water.” She also did not know how to raise a baby, other than by employing someone with the skills she did not have. So when my mother brought me home from the hospital she put me in the care of a black woman named Callie who loved me like her own child. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1942 servants like Callie could be had for a low wage because they had few options.

    I bonded to Callie and she to me and life was good for me. All this was rudely interrupted by World War II when my father joined the Navy and was stationed in Cambridge, Massachusetts for six months of communication school. He called my mother and said to come to Massachusetts so the family could be together. My mother reluctantly agreed. I was packed up and taken to Cambridge, leaving Callie behind. My mother talks about snow, the tiny apartment, the lack of good help for hire. I was one-year old, bewildered at the disappearance of the black mother I had bonded with and frustrated by the ill-formed attempts of my birth mother to provide care.

    The six months passed. We returned to Tuscaloosa but somehow Callie did not seem to fit into the family any more. I was angry at her for leaving me, I guess – not sure which mother to trust.

    My mother did have a knack for hiring good, loving women to work for us. First Emma and later, Bessie brought some care into the home. My mother gradually learned gourmet cooking but fortunately left most of the basic cooking to the help. I remember one day Emma brought her grand daughter with her to our home. She said she had not place else to leave her. The girl was shy and afraid, about four years old I guess.
    My parents worried about this how to handle this and concluded that sad as it might be, Emma’s grand daughter was not their problem and could not come with Emma to work. Overhearing them talk I realized with a sick feeling that Emma’s caring for me meant the absence of care for her grand daughter. But that was the way it was and as a five year old boy, I had no say in the matter. I tried to forget about it but it still haunts me.

    So I grew up in a great big bundle of white privilege. There was just one problem, down deep inside I felt my mother was black and someone had fired her without warning or consideration. So when I encounter racism, and it was everywhere in Tuscaloosa in the 1940’s and 50’s, I was pulled apart. One part of me felt entitled and another part was angry at the insults to my (black) mother.

    So The Help touched me deeply, not because it represented history, but because it helped tell an aspect of my story.

    I had a hard time watching the film. I had imagined the book happening in my home in Tuscaloosa with people I knew growing up. I gradually accepted the screen version as it proceeded, but I was way behind most of the audience that were clearly in love with the film from beginning to end.

    To me, The Help movingly depicts some of the complex tensions involved in black women raising white children during segregation. At a time when much of the public conversation about race in America today seems to involve accusations, defenses and excuses, The Help explores some of the complexity and the pain, imperfectly and incompletely and with some artistic flare. Isn’t that something many of us been hoping for?

    – previously posted at Coming to the Table’s email list

    • I understand your feelings about The Help. The book and film hit very close to home for me. I too was cared for by African American women as a child and some of the scenes were like flash backs to me. In fact, these women in my early life helped lead me to eventually acknowledging my family history of slave owning and led me to investigate this history in a documentary film and in other research. (See Shared History, http://www.sharedhistory.org.) These relationships–of the beloved African American caretaker and her white charges–are very murky and the true love that might have existed is always compromised by the reality of inequality beyond that of employee and employer. The confusion I always felt was why my mother entrusted me into the care of black people when she thought they were inferior.

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