The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Racial Politics in Hollywood

Notes on The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Anyone who really knows me knows that I absolutely hated-yes, hated-The Help. Let me be clear: I am talking about the novel and not the movie. And, that is because after having painfully read the novel, I refused to see the movie. There, I said it, and even wrote it for all of the world to see!

While I have many gripes with the novel, what bothered me most was the way in which the author, Kathryn Stockett, trivialized the Civil Rights Movement by centering it entirely around black people’s desires to share the same toilets with white folks. That troubled me. There came a moment in my my reading where I stopped and said, “So . . . this book is about sh!t?” I then proceeded to call Da Realist 1 and yell at her about this book and how I thought it was full of sh!t.

Let’s examine this notion further. There is the woman agonizing about her 17 year old son who was in jail for using a white-only bathroom. Either he was illiterate and incapable of reading the “White-only” sign or he suddenly forgot Jim Crow laws that prevented him from behaving properly in the segregated Mississippi. You choose. Either way, I found it odd because black folks did not forget segregation–that was their way of life, and  forgetting it could be a death sentence. The murder of Emmett Till served as a reminder to all, of what happened when black people did not acquiesce to the rules of the segregated South.

Then, there were the domestic workers, who were bothered by not being able to share the bathroom of the families for whom they worked, and were forced to use out houses. To the credit of one white family, they built a separate bathroom inside their home for their maid’s use because “Everybody knows [black people] carry different kinds of diseases than [white people] do” (8).

Lawn of toiletsThen, the antagonist in the novel, Hilly Holbrook, is working to introduce into Mississippi legislature, a law which she titled, The Home Help Sanitation Initiative. This initiative would promote separate help quarters in every white person’s home, as a way of preventing the spread of “Negro germs.” Skeeter, the protagonist, is so kindhearted to the “Negro maids,” that she decides to play a trick on Hilly and posts in the newspaper she works for that unwanted toilets can be dropped off at the Holbrook home. Hilly awakens to a lawn full of toilets. Enough bathroom talk yet?

Wait! I can’t forget the pie Minny made with her own excrement. (For those who have not read the novel, I’ll end it here. Enough is enough, damn it!)

This novel, situated within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, only offered readers a cursory glance at high profile leaders like James Meredith and Martin Luther King, Jr. and it failed to recognize the larger issues of segregation and racial violence that blacks experienced. For example, The Little Rock Nine so desperately wanted equal access to education, that they braved violent mobs who spat upon them, hit them, and threw various types of food and drink on them. I could go on and on about this book and what it failed to accomplish, but I already feel the need to take my blood pressure.

But here is the thing: for some strange reason, I thought the author was black throughout most of the novel, though I later found out otherwise. I only include this to dispel any argument that one might have that I am responding to this novel negatively because I resent the fact that the author is white. On the contrary. I believe that anyone can write about any subject matter they choose. In order for the characters to be believable, however, you need to actually know and understand the culture about which you are writing. For me, Stockett did not know and understand the culture of black women maids who served in the homes of white families.

As the movie was released, I learned that I was not alone in my disdain for this novel. Da Realist 1 won’t even call it by name (she calls it The Terrible, Awful book) and The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement, arguing that “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” (Read the ABWH Statement on The Help here).

The truth is, when the novel came out and the movie was later released, every white woman I came across wanted to know if I had read The Help. (They thought they wanted to discuss it with me, but believe me, they did not.) I was at my daughter’s dance class and all of the mothers, who happened to be white, kept asking me if I read the book and wanted to hear about how much I loved it.

Stop. Rewind. Now, read that last sentence again and replace dance class with gymnastics class, and you will understand how everywhere I had gone, white women were talking about how wonderful this novel is. I was so sick of hearing about that damn book! Da Realist 1 was even approached by a white employee at a book store who wanted to discuss the book. When she told him that she did not care for it, he became hostile. This is when black people should be skeptical: whenever soooooo many white people like a work that addresses race, it should be cause for concern.

The Help, the book and The Help, the movie both fit the formula for books and movies that address racial issues in a way that white people can be amused and entertained. The Help has a white woman protagonist, who makes white people feel comfortable, and provides them with someone with whom they can identify. After all, everyone would like to believe that they are Skeeter and not Hilly.

Hollywood Rule: There must be a kindhearted white woman or man in the story who comes to the aid of black folks and supports them. Otherwise, white people feel convicted and uncomfortable with the story, even if the story is non-fiction. And, for the record: I’m not saying that these kindhearted white folks did not exist; they just may not have existed in every story and in every black person’s life. This bit of news may come as a shock to some white people.

12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

So, why am I discussing The Help now, 2 years after the release of the movie? While looking for a place that was still showing 12 Years a Slave, I came across these comments about the movie, posted on moviefone.com:

“Horrible waste of time and money. It was realistic but how many times do we need to sensationalize the same tired story of the unfair whites and the poor blacks. It is a fact of life that happened a long time ago. Each time this story is told, it brings about additional racial tension in the USA.”

“Interesting take on a past that some ppl will try and hold emotions for. Not enough emphasis on the many white ppl who sacrificed a lot, including their life, to help the black cause. IN a time when racial division is on the rise movies like this do not help.”

“I forgot to star this movie. One star. Again, too intense and too much violence against people. Doesn’t matter black or white. I don’t like seeing people getting beat up so much, not entertaining.”

“It was definitely gritty. Just a horrible, depressing film and story. Not uplifting, but alarming. Particularly considering what is happening in the US politically as the white republicans try to rewrite history and turn back the clock.”

“Boring Fell asleep The same thing we’ve seen before.”

“Too long, gratuitous violence,how many times did we have to watch beatings and whippings…..did not like this movie.”

“Boring..very predictable…save your money and rent it”

While I cannot identify the race of those who made these comments, similar comments can be found around the internet, articulating white people’s discomfort with movies that address slavery as the subject matter. The same outrage does not occur as the the result of so many movies representing the horrible experience of Jews in Nazi Germany, and that is probably because Americans have always been willing to acknowledge the atrocities that occurred outside of our borders, while avoiding those that occurred within.

12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, is a hard pill for some white people to swallow because of the obvious injustice and violence experienced by Solomon Northrup and his fellow slaves. His story was not a safe one to tell, like that in The Help.

First, 12 Years a Slave is non-fiction, and it forces readers to deal with the harsh cruelties of slavery from the perspective of a true story. One cannot hide behind the the label of fiction when reading the narrative or watching film, which is why the above comments are comical at best. The white people that Northrup came across were vicious, violent, and conniving thieves. Why should he have depicted them in any way other than he experienced them?

Second, as one of the comments indicate, this story is not uplifting in the way that many white viewers need it to be. Brutal beatings are not uplifting, but then again, I did not go to a movie on slavery and expect it to be.

But, I beg us to rethink the narrative of a happy ending, especially when it comes to narratives on racial violence in slavery and Jim Crow. For example, I am not certain how a narrative–a true narrative–of a man who was kidnapped and robbed of 12 years of his “freedom”, ownership of his body and how it gets used, his time/experiences with family because of excessive greed and white privilege, was brutally beaten, forced into chattel slavery, and then released, can not be a story of triumph.

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Furthermore, if only those who had fallen asleep had stayed awake long enough, they would have found out that even during slavery, Brad Pitt would come and save the day for black people.

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