Posted: 08/20/2011


The Help

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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I do trust that veteran actress Cicely Tyson does another movie soon that doesn’t show her as an aging domestic, the role she plays in the almost blockbuster hit The Help. I know she’s the favorite to star whenever the role calls for an elderly black woman, and I’m sure she’s making hefty buck, considering in its first week The Help was the No. 2 movie of that weekend, grossing $35 million. Still I’d like to see her in a more uplifting movie, since we don’t see much of her.

This movie, which also stars actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, comes with much controversy. The Wire actor Wendell Pierce took his 80-year-old mother to see it and is quoted as saying through Twitter that, “My mother told me for the first time that she was ‘The Help.’ ” He continued: “I never knew my mother had raised white children until we saw this movie. I was shocked. She was hurt by the film. She thought it was an insult,” Pierce wrote, launching a tweet-fest that went on for hours. “ ‘The Help’ was well done but was a passive version of the terror of Jim Crow South. … the story was a sentimental primer of a palatable segregation history that is Jim Crow light,” Pierce added.

Now just how folks view The Help varies from person to person. I took my 78-year-old mother to see the film, and she also mentioned that some things, as shown in the film, weren’t reality. I can’t see, ever, where the Black domestic would eat with the white boss lady, as depicted in one scene, with Spencer playing the domestic named Minny. Award-winning actress Davis plays domestic Aibileen, upon which the book and movie are supposedly based. There’s even been controversy about that, with a black from Mississippi having her lawsuit against the author (Kathryn Stockett) thrown out—she alleges that The Help is based upon her life story.

The movie is about a 22-year-old white woman named Skeeter who gets a job at the local newspaper and she’s dying to prove herself. So, she decides to write about the injustices that Black domestics of the era faced, among them not being able to use the bathrooms inside the home where they worked. In one scene much is given to the building of an outside toilet so Abilene can have her own facilities (as if they are doing Aibileen a favor). It’s just demeaning, but I have to keep reminding myself that this was another era. Another scene shows Minny nearing pissing herself, while the boss demands that she goes outside, even though the boss’ mother, played by Sissy Spacek has no problem with Minny using the family toilet.

Also, the assassinations of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and Pres. John F. Kennedy were sort of just gleaned through in the movie as if they were afterthoughts, in the vein of TMZ, as opposed to (in Evers’ case) real, life-changing Civil Rights events. And if someone has to get an Oscar nod and take home the coveted prize for this film, please let it be Davis ; she deserves it. She has an impressive body of work, including Antwone Fisher, Doubt—for which she earned a nomination—and Broadway hit August Wilson’s Fences—for which she earned a Tony; and she works so hard.

The movie shows the relationships that black domestics had with their charges, even sacrificing their personal family lives and the raising of their own children to raise the children of their bosses, with not nearly enough compensation. It also shows the prejudices of the time, but tries to lighten the harsh realities of everything by showing Aibileen and Minny during moments where they just let their hair down; even these moments are shown with them in the kitchen preparing to serve the boss lady and her guests.

The problem I have with The Help is that while some scenes were historic, some were just blatantly implausible, and I suspect that there was no way that circumstances played out like this in reality—not in Mississippi and certainly not during the Civil Rights Era.
But Hollywood has again taken its brush and presented the “feel good” story, with the young, white girl writing and publishing a book about Black domestics’ issues, lives, and in the end even getting a writing position at Harper’s in New York.

While I don’t think the Black domestics were exactly the beneficiaries of a white savior in this case, as some others have written. Certainly they couldn’t write and publish their own book. Heck, they weren’t even supposed to know how to read, let alone write. But the movie does leave out more realistic images of the Jim Crow era, a time in which the movie is situated. But I suppose too much reality would scare moviegoers away.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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