"The Help" & The Race Chord

August 11, 2011 26 Comments

So I just came in from seeing the Hollywood movie that’s got my FaceBook page and Twitter account all abuzz: “The Help,” written and directed by Tate Taylor based on a novel by his childhood friend, Kathryn Stockett. It’s the fictional story of a group of black maids in 1960s Mississippi who agree to share their work lives with a young, aspiring, white female journalist.  It’s clear that yet again this kind of story has struck a dissonant, familiar, chord with the American public — I’ll call it “The Race Chord.”  While black thought leaders I respect are publicly denouncing the flick,  others I also respect are making a point to enthusiastically support it via press release

I get the conundrum. Once again, the power and privilege of storytelling via the mighty Silver Screen is dominated by the white savior trope that permeates our cultural and psychic consciousness.  To those who simply cannot stomach voluntarily subjecting oneself to these searing images yet again, I totally understand.  After all, that’s why I never went to see, nor have to this day seen, the much acclaimed, “The Blind Side.” Regardless of how good the script might be– when it is essentially the same story that arcs when the heroic whites are moved through some exceptional “friendship” to rescue the otherwise pitiful blacks — as a political matter, I must protest.  Boycott. Resist. Protect my psyche.  Those of us studying and understanding the pervasive nature of structural racism understand that it must also be resisted on the level of our  beliefs, attitudes, imagery and internal conditioning.  Or, at least be very suspicious that the Home Shopping Network is selling jewelry, home decor, and clothes “created in the spirit of ‘The Help.'” A structural analysis helps us understand that larger interests indeed benefit from the perpetuation of such a ‘spirit.’

But for some reason, I wasn’t internally halted from going to see The Help.

The performances were exquisite. Brilliant performances especially by Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone — and a treat to see veterans Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek show ’em how the original divas do it.   From a movie making craft standpoint, it is the epitome of why there should even be such a thing as Hollywood: powerful acting, script, direction, scenery, score, period research, etc. I did enjoy the film…

…except for that strange and discomforting feeling I had knowing that the racial oppression dynamics and the indignities of Viola Davis’ character was not so long ago, nor that far away. My grandmother was a maid for a white family.

….except to know that it was just last year that my home state of New York passed the nation’s first ever — first ever — Domestic Worker Protection Law.

…except that I saw it in affluent West Hartford, CT on a Wednesday evening in a theater that was nearly packed…with clusters of white women the overwhelming majority in the house.  Obviously, there is still an attraction to this story. To be fair, it is the kind of meaning-making, conversation starting, drama many of us want to see more of coming out of Hollywood…

…except that I am quite annoyed and incensed by the political and economic reality of Hollywood as gatekeeper of this powerful medium. This blog continues the ongoing conversation here about power — and here the institutional power of Hollywood to shape images, truths and our conceptions of history, reality, identity and possibility.  There are hardly any blacks with greenlighting authority in Hollywood as we speak. If we are honest and alert — we know that we — black and white women — still experience these same  lingering racialized dynamics in our places of work and elsewhere.  The Help reminds me that in 2011, we are not so distant legatees from the society depicted in The Help.

What do you think? What about film and its power to reinforce or rattle the status quo? White and black women, especially from The South — I’d love to hear your reflections especially. As I said, it’s definitely struck a chord…


  • Gibrán says:

    Appreciating the passionate post Melinda – powerful. Talk about patterns! Talk about narrative and story! Talk about art & commerce coming together in often beautiful and often dangerous ways. I don’t know what to do about Hollywood, I’m most often a “Walk Out” from that scene – but you are right to point out that certain consequences cannot be ignored…

    Racialized social outcomes are as real as ever, some would argue even worse… so what might be the mediums by which we tell different stories? Are there opportunities inherent in the radical decentralization of media that the new technology has made possible?

  • Patricia says:

    Within the civil rights movement, white people were “the help.” ~Martha Southgate

    I haven’t seen a movie yet that has depicted white allies in a believable or historically accurate way.

    Does anyone know of one?


  • Charlie Jones says:

    love the blog post, Melinda. i cannot remember the last movie i went to see. Hollywood cannot (imho) even get the easy things right – how on earth can we expect them to deal with race in an authentic way?

  • Melinda says:

    Wow. Wow. Wow. Good stuff. Im hoping folks more cinematically literate than I can weigh in with some thoughts here. To Gibran’s question of decentralization — absolutely! I am heartened by the genius of filmmaker movements of AAFRM (African American Filmmaker’s Releasing Movement) http://www.affrm.com – a new theatrical distribution entity powered by the nation’s finest black film festival organizations. The collective will theatrically release quality independent African-American films through simultaneous limited engagements in select cities. Also the group led by filmmaker Warrington Hudlin – DVRepublic.org which “exists as a self-validating, self-supporting online community of “citizens” whomonitor the intersection of media, technology, and social justice. Yes! New opportunities presented by the internet and technology to democratize distribution of our stories.

    @Charlie and @Patricia — great points! @Patricia – I dont know of a film off the top, but the cable TV show – (I think on LifeTime?) – “Anyday Now” – was a personal favorite and I think a great depiction of black and white womens’ friendship. @Charlie — I hear you my brother! There’s got to be some films that were well done on the race question….? Hmmm…..

  • jose masso says:

    Sister Melinda…..thank you for sharing your thoughts (on point!) and bringing light to the “conundrum” that we face whenever Hollywood or media “documents” our story – those of us from the African diaspora regardless if it’s in the United States or the Caribbean or Latin America……my wife and I saw the film yesterday in a theatre that was nearly full with the overwhelming majority being elderly white women. I agree with you regarding the quality of the acting and everything related to the movie making aspect of the film., we also in that sense enjoyed the film…having seen VIola Davis perform on stage with Denzel Washington in August Wilson’s Fences last summer we left the movie theatre knowing that she is truly a gifted and remarkable actress and look forward to seeing her in roles outside of the expected…..we also left with a “back to the future” sense of how we are still subject to the whims of those in power as to not only how our history and reality is portrayed but also the reality that in 2011 whatever progress we have made is being subjected to a growing new “Jim Crowism”….Melissa Harris-Perry shared her simmering views last night on MSNBC which helped Divina and I put more context to the movie and what we had experienced emotionally……I sense that her new book “Sister Citizen” may enlighten and remind the movie patrons of The Help to the profound difference between Hollywood and reality…….I believe that one our challenges and opportunities is how do we use 21st Century technology to share our stories without the economic paradigm of Hollywood commercialism in such a way that it becomes disruptive and transforming….thanks again for taking the time and giving attention to this matter……con mucho cariño, respeto, admiración y en solidaridad…un abrazo…JM

  • Melinda says:

    @Jose – thank you thank you thank you. Speaking of technology — its so wonderful to use it to engage ourselves in conversations about whats important to us, with those whose views and thoughts are important to us. I receive all of that yumminess wrapped en un abrazo! Let’s continue to tell our stories without reservation!

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Thank you for writing on this topic, Melinda! I’ve so far avoided the book and film. The enthusiasm white folks (without much race conciousness) seem to have about it makes me uncomfortable. As if this shortie representative of a past that is truly behind us. I am looking forward to hearing more folks’ reactions and to seeing it for myself at some point.

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Oops I meant “story is” not shortie…

  • Melinda says:

    @Patricia – I just went back and read that excellent article by Martha Southgate. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  • Melinda says:

    @Jen — thanks for confirming some of my hunches on the curious (to me) excitement amongst some white folk on the film. And, hey — its a “shortie” story indeed when compared with the longer arc of what was more true about the Civil Rights Period, according to historians like Southgate and Harris Perry — so “shortie” might in fact be the word! 😉

  • Linda says:

    Thanks Melinda!! As a white woman with deep southern roots (my early childhood and both sides of my family) I tend to stay away from books and movies that reinforce this narrative (which I rather crudely refer to as the Mighty Whitey stories). I’m very aware of the ways narrative influences thought and action, and in a lifelong quest to undo the stories I absorbed, just can’t go there. So I haven’t read the book or seen the movie!

    I’m also thinking (with a brother and sister-in-law in the film and tv and theater biz), I tend to construct it a little less as “Hollywood” and more about shat those in power in Hollywood are doing. There are great scripts, small movies, amazing actors and directors – who don’t get much of the pie. How do we support that amazing work? The arts are in trouble all over – music as well – in large part (IMHO) related to funding, power and who owns the studios.

  • @SekouLaidlow says:

    Thanks for sharing Melinda. This is an ongoing necessary conversation that must be engaged to keep us grounded and ambitious for more integrity. Not having seen it yet its interesting that my expectations hold a bias shaped by a history as a black man, experience as an actor/artist, and the daunting often times oppressive perspective imposed by an industry intent on mantaining its status quo! I say that to say the filter through which I see “The Help” or any movie for that matter is already tattered with abuse and misconceptions. And it is because of all these present influences that I go with reservation to see a movie like this in hopes that “this time” it will do “us” some real justice.

    And from the actors perspective its HARD to get a job period.Folk got to pay bills. You do not have to starve just because you’re an artist. The actor him or herself has to figure out the “why”when doing the job. I do think there should be some integrity involved in the arc of a career but the reality is some of the jobs become a means to an end for a larger platform to tell ones story. And to take it one step further sometimes you don’t really know your role until the movies done. Especially on much of these projects where rewriting is taking place while you are on set.
    My response to why “Viola” play a role like this in 2011. As long as we keep having children we need to keep telling these stories. There is no statue of limitations on sharing our history! The important issue is the “how” we tell them. I could go on but I look forward to seeing the movie and its great that we simply have some really good actors that are able to show there skillz and that they have earned there right to be recognized and talked about! Go head wit ya bad selves and thanks for paving the way cause we can use all “THE HELP” we can get!

  • Melinda says:

    @Linda Thanks so much for sharing. I greatly appreciate your unique voice and perspective – its not represented hardly enough in these public discussions. I have often hinted with a few of my white (and black, for that matter) women friends from the South — that I ought (as a Northern Belle) to host a “tea” for us to talk about the strange and fraught relationships between black and white women – through the Southern lens. I have a few girlfriends from Tennessee, SC, GA. Would love to have you join. Nudge me if you dig the idea. Of course, it would be about deconstructing but also reconstructing a new narrative — and over sweet tea to boot!

    @Sekou – Wow. Wonderful to hear the artists’/actors’ and voice in this conversation…Greatly appreciate you bring up the integrity issue and the reality of how smaller (actors’) parts of the (Hollywood) system — actors like yourselves Viola, etc.) do struggle with this too — how to eat, work, resist, empower and re-create a new narrative all at once….using the tools you have and perfect. Its a life — interestingly enough – that activists and social justice seekers also share much in common with “conscious” artists like yourselves. Thats once reason why Im looking forward to this upcoming conference in Utah next week: Creative Change http://opportunityagenda.org/files/field_file/Creative%20Creative%202011%20-%20Registration.pdf
    – where I’ll be substituting as Lead Facilitator for Darshan’s dad (Gibran X!). Will be interesting to see if this film comes up in the discussion at all. Wish you could come! 😉

  • Toni says:

    Thank you for this Melinda. First of all I am not a blogger, as a matter of fact this is my first blog ever!(Forgive me if I make any blog faux pas.) As a black women who grew up in the North, I knew women who worked as “The Help”. Like your grandmother mine worked as a domestic in NYC for a white woman who was an illustrator for the newspapers. I remember as a child the chill that went through me every time her employer and young child called her by her first name. I was brought up to call elders Mr., Mrs. or Miss, Uncle or Aunt, Grandpa or Grandma, and even cousin! I also knew how my grandmother and these other women carried themselves outside of their work life. They were completely different people. These women held social tea parties, organized civil rights events; taught music, coordinated fundraising events, and most of all promoted education. I constantly heard growing up, “you get a good education, you hear.” Most of all they were proud, intelligent women teaching me and my peers life lessons that couldn’t be found in a history book. They knew who they were in the midst of the turmoil of the 50’s and 60’s. They knew exactly when and how to enter and exit the political/social arenas in which they performed. I remember a saying one of my professors stated that slaves would utter under their breath, “I’ve got one face for the master to see, I’ve got another that I know is me”. I would bet my last dollar that these ladies of my past probably uttered the same statement.
    I received an email this morning entitled, “An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help” from the Association of Black Women Historians. It too speaks to the “conundrum” of this movie. They also feel that this movie “distorts,ignores and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers;…it misrepresents African American speech and culture; makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.” They also speak of the stellar performances of the African American actresses and in no way criticize their talent. However, as historians they refuse to allow the book and movie to “strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment”. I am fortunate,that from an historical sense I have a pretty good idea of life for black folks during this period. I don’t expect Hollywood to produce anything based on fact, that really isn’t their job. However, I really worry about those who don’t have the historical knowledge of the past or even know they need ask the questions when it comes to real historical events portrayed in the movies. Unfortunately, as humans we many times take the easy way out and allow others to often think for us and dictate what is true and what is made up. Now I have to decide if I’m going to see the movie or not!

  • Melinda says:

    Toni — I am so honored that you decided to bless us and enter this conversation as your first blog post! THANK YOU for that offering — it is so valuable. I totally understand and respect your choice about whether to see it or not. However, I must say that I REALLY would love to get your take on it should you go to see it. Again, you’ve made my day….(call me once youve seen it!! xooxx 😉

  • Linda says:

    One more thing – I’ve been thinking about this on and off all day. Again, I haven’t seen the movie and haven’t read the book – so may be off on this. But a big concern I have, always, with these stories is that they reinforce the mainstream story that racism is about “those” bad Southern whites of that time period. Which allows for the flow of things like seeing Obama’s presidency as creating a post-racial society. And also lets white folks off the hook – as if the recent research about the wealth gap doesn’t say it all. It simplifies the story to an interpersonal story about “those” “bad” “Southerners”. While we white people are all “them” in every way we don’t see and don’t work to undo the structural ways racism plays out in the here and now – North and South.

  • Thanks for using your eloquence to delve into “The Help” story. You get to the heart of the matter. We ought to use this moment to stir up truth empowering ourselves as black women in America to stand against the persistence of inequity and injustice.

  • Evelyn Bakon says:

    Thank you for putting into words exactly how I have been feeling about this film from the moment I heard about it. When I told friends that I would not be going to see the movie and that I have not read the book, nor will I, the response was that the black women won and it showed the bad side of white women. My response was that if it was done by Hollywood there is no way that blacks would win and whites would be shown in a bad light. Any time there is a bad white person in a Hollywood movie they are always redeemed by showing the white knight or white knightress coming to the rescue of the “poor pitiful black people.” I have seen this movie in some form or another all of my life. I am 67 years old and grew up in Georgia during Jim Crow. My mother was a domestic in white households, working from sunup to sundown taking care of their needs while I as the oldest child in my family (from the age of 11), was responsible to taking care of my three younger sisters while my mother worked. This included cooking, cleaning, doing the family wash outside in tin tubs with a scrub board and an iron pot set over a fire, making sure my sisters were dressed and off to school each morning and back home in the afternoon. I remember my mother coming home so exhausted from cleaning and cooking all day for the white family, with the skin around her nails swollen and inflamed from using harsh chemicals (without gloves) to clean up their mess. I remember the time she came home crying because the white woman she worked for had slapped her across the face accusing my mother of having used her toothbrush to comb her hair. To this day I seethed with anger thinking how this evil woman treated my mother who was smarter and classier than she could ever be. The only thing holding my mother back was the fact that she was black in America. So once again the white woman gets put on the pedestal for rescuing us. I will not be fooled by Hollywood who will only put on film the worse images there is of blacks in America such as Stephen Fetchit, black sambo, tar babby, mammy, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, gang members, etc. Viola Davis is a talented, beautiful and intelligent black woman. When will hollywood allow her to not play against type.

  • Isabella says:

    Yes,I am a Black and white woman, to put it simply. And judging from all the hype of this movie I know I won’t be seeing it. I had to watch “The Blind Side” because it was the movie on the plane. And it was totally unbelievable. Like you said, Hollywood’s in it to make a buck. I wish, Hollywood or any of the movie gods could make a believable rendition of race relations without being over the top. Seems like the majority of white middle American women all have at least one “black friend”, or are they referring to Oprah?

  • Melinda says:

    @Evelyn Thank you so much for sharing your truth. Your perspective and the part of your personal story that youve chosen to share in response to this is a gift. My prayer is that we dont miss the magnitude of it…thank you seems like too little, but it is the best I have when given a priceless offering. Lets keep telling and telling and telling our stories! @Isabella – I can dig it! And love the humor that is unfortunately probably more true than funny!@Linda @Katherine – Indeed -lets resist and reconstruct and tell the truth along the way! This conversation is soooo rich!! Thanks for sharing, all!

  • Deborah says:

    I am grateful for the conversation….Thank you…

  • chad says:

    my my. some brilliant storm — of emotions, family histories, opinions on Hollywood, capitalism, identity, and power — that you have fostered here. Thank you. The blog post is magnificent, and the comments are equally so.
    I haven’t seen the movie, nor read the book. But the Help is doing a hell of a job with (1) telling stories and (2) getting small groups of people to have real conversations about race. At least, more real than we do on most days. In book clubs, with family members. Shoot, I even did so today; and the Help came up in that conversation of 4 Black women, 1 white woman, and me.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Wow! Missed a big conversation while on vacation. Thanks Melinda for laying out the issues so beautifully, and to all who jumped in. I’m not planning to see the movie for many of the reasons folks have laid out. I can live without another Mighty Whitey film (as Linda so aptly put it), and yet I would love to see some of the great performances that have been described. I know it’s not Hollywood’s job to teach history, but the problem is that rather than simply not teaching history, they are teaching ‘anti-history.’ It might be too much to ask for folks who can get it right to have access to the big screen. In the meanwhile, I am hoping the independents who can and do handle race relations with the requisite care can continue to grow in their influence and reach, and that black actors and actresses can work without constantly having to weigh the potential damage of a given role if they decide to take it.

  • NIcole says:

    Hey so i finally saw the movie last night with a friend. I have read a lot of reviews about this movie. Also i really didn’t want to critique it until i finally had a chance to see it.
    I completely agree with you. I thought some of the performances were great. I thought it was a well told fictional story but thats what it was, fictional. I have given up on mainstream media (corporate white men) to think about a world beyond themselves.
    I think there was a lot of humor in this movie. Good and Bad. I think a good way to mask a lot of the pain and suffering that people go through is to add humor to the situation. They did that well.
    I personally think the most unsettling thing for me was the end of the movie. The Help (the book) seemed to be this Bible figure. It freed all the poor Black people and now there is no racism, and no hatred. I wonder what would have really happened if a white woman actually wrote a book like this in that time period. I wonder how many Black women would have lived to tell their stories. I wonder if these women would have been harassed, tortured, or beaten. I wonder how the real story would have played out. You know i would love to see THE HELP 2 (you wont, because apparently that story isn’t worth telling…thats when you will begin to experience some real dissonance)
    I didnt like it nor did i hate it. I just would not spend 11 bucks on this movie ( especially if your a person of color)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *