By Gwen Dawkins
A couple of weeks ago, I shared some highlights from my “Mississippi Joy Ride.” I visited Greenwood, Mississippi and filming locations for the 2011 movie The Help, based on the 2009 book written by Mississippi native Kathryn Stockett.
The story is set in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, amid floral dresses with cinched waistlines, coiffed hairdos, garden parties, patent leather pocketbooks and polite perfection — all the while casting a veil over systemic racism in the United States. The illusion of perfection is made possible by the starched-uniform-white-apron-wearing domestic help: the black maids who work for established and up-and-coming white families. The “work” includes cooking, cleaning, shopping, and raising white children — but these families don’t want these women using their bathrooms!
Despite that description, I would classify The Help as a “feel good” movie with a “comeuppance” finale. The film touches on moments of love, humor, respect, shame, discrimination, and triumph — but it doesn’t look too closely or deeply at racism.
Black & White Worlds
In the film, a young white reporter, Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone, has just graduated from college and wants to make a name for herself as a writer. She applies for an editorial assistant position at a large publishing company. She gets rejected, but the editor wants Skeeter to send more original writing. In the meantime, Skeeter gets hired by the Jackson Journal to write a housekeeping column — a topic of which she knows little about. She turns to some of the black maids of her friends for cleaning advice she can use in her column. Skeeter is not the typical woman of the time or place, interested in societal recognition and “doing good” while casting a blind eye to the racist customs all around them and within their own hearts.
With time, Skeeter earns the maids’ trust and convinces them to tell her honest, behind-the-scenes stories of the good, bad and the ugly: love and respect, combined with shame, discrimination and humiliation. Skeeter serves as a conduit between the black and white worlds. The black community does not fully trust her, nor should they. But they let her in enough to help them. It was important to Skeeter to get their stories “out there” and despite their fear it became important for them as well. They want her to get their stories “out there.” She writes a manuscript from “The Help’s” point of view. The publishing house publishes the book, which becomes a national bestseller. While the town’s name has been fictionalized and all names changed to protect the innocent and guilty, Jacksonians have a blast trying to figure out which real-life characters are the basis for the stories. Everyone is happy in the end. I loved the book and movie. But I would — I’m white.
I’ve always thought of Aibileen and Minny as the two heroines. I do see Skeeter as a hero as well but to a lesser degree. But honestly, I didn’t look too deeply beneath the surface. As a native Californian who grew up in the 70s, I also felt removed from the fray. I did not grow up in a setting of overt racism. However, not everyone sees the story as a victory, including the Movie’s lead, Viola Davis.
Viola Davis’ Regret
Actress Viola Davis starred as Aibileen Clark, the black maid to the Leefolt family and loving caretaker to little Mae Mobley. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and won the TV Screen Actors Guild Award for that role. And although Viola’s acting career began in the 1990s and included critically acclaimed work in theater, television and film, she did not achieve worldwide attention until her “breakthrough role” as Aibileen in The Help. Viola Davis is a great actor! Too numerous to mention them all, just a few of her accolades include being nominated for four Academy Awards and winning Best Supporting Actress for Fences in 2016. She is also the first African American actress to achieve the “Triple Crown of Acting,” winning an Academy Award, a Primetime Emmy Award and two Tony Awards.
In playing Aibileen, Viola said, “I feel like I brought my mom to life; I’ve channeled her spirit. I channeled the spirit of my grandmother, and I’ve kind of paid homage to how they’ve contributed to my life and the lives of so many people.”
Even so, she has also expressed regret in playing the role. In a 2020 interview with Entertainment Weekly, she said, “There’s no one who’s not entertained by The Help,” she said. “But there’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed myself and my people because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready to [tell the whole truth].” She adds that the film was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism.”
I Am Not Your Negro
Film critic Candice Frederick concurred on OprahMag.com, ”The Help paints racism in very broad strokes, presenting it all in a vacuum, like an old-time disease that has long since been remedied.” Frederick explained that the film doesn’t weigh its white viewers with guilt, thus failing to make them realize they’re complicit in this problem. “So, of course, white viewers are going to flock to it, because it doesn’t force them to face anything real in the present day in the way that a film like I Am Not Your Negro does.”
I watched I Am Not Your Negro, a modern documentary based on the writings, speeches and appearances of James Baldwin. At its core, the film (and Baldwin) ask a simple question about race in America: “What is happening in this country?” Baldwin was an essayist, novelist, playwright, college professor and civil rights voice. Born in Harlem in 1926, Baldwin left the United States in 1948 for Paris. James Baldwin felt that once he was away from overt racism, he could finally speak freely about fear, race relations, police brutality, menacing white lies and buried white guilt and the genuine danger of being a black person in America.
The film opens with a fascinating 1968 clip from the Dick Cavett Show, in which, among other things, Baldwin said, “There’s not much hope for black people.” He frankly spoke of black people living under intolerable conditions for some 400 years, and the lies told to white people that they choose to believe. “For me, this has always been a violent country.”
He was right then, and it’s still true today. Referring to white people, James Baldwin said, “They don’t want to believe that there is not one step morally, or actually, between Birmingham and Los Angeles.” This quote applied to the 1960s world of The Help and today’s environment. Those words hit home for me especially, because as I watched The Help, I did feel removed because of my Los Angeles upbringing. I realize now my flawed thinking.
Continuing The Conversation
This piece is not meant to be heavy-hitting. I am not a heavy-hitting person. But one thing I know for sure is that you have to meet people where they are. So, for some, The Help provides a stepping stone onto contemplation, if nothing else. Like Davis, the movie presented two sides of the same coin for some. And then for others, the film is a surface-level story that doesn’t accomplish enough. The Help’s author, Kathryn Stockett, met with much pushback when her book came out, even more, once the movie was released. A woman named Aiblene Cooper filed a lawsuit against Stockett, claiming she had been used as the basis of the film’s Aibilene without her permission and didn’t like the depiction.
The point is that all of these interpretations are valid and true. So, from wherever we stand as individuals, let’s ask: how do we expand the conversation?
A Range Of Reactions
Some interesting reading on people’s reactions to The Help:
- Viola Davis interview with Entertainment Weekly
- Viola Davis interview with Vanity Fair
- Viola Davis’ 2015 Emmy acceptance speech for “How To Get Away With Murder” for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series. Not about ‘The Help’ specifically, but she quotes Harriet Tubman, and it’s still relevant.
- Ablene Cooper Suing Author Kathryn Stockett.
- As a white woman, Kathryn Stockett wondered if it was her story to tell but wanted it told.