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Chocolate Breast Milk: A Review of The Help

August 11, 2011

Warning: this review contains LOTS of spoilers.:-)

—-

In 1923, the Virginia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy enlisted the help of Senator John Williams of Mississippi to put forth a resolution to build a national monument dedicated to the Black Mammy. Several prominent leaders of the African American community, including Mary Church Terrell, rallied against the monument and it was never built.

But by that time it was too late: the Black Mammy had been immortalized already in 1912 in another monument at Arlington National Cemetery, the Confederate Memorial. It depicts a “frieze” containing “six vignettes…includ[ing] a black slave following his young master; an officer kissing his infant child in the arms of her mammy…”

This is the public image of the Black Mammy, but for many of us, Black and White, we have intensely personal experiences with her.

For me, it was summer, circa 1976, and my family and I were visiting my mother’s mother, Grandma Florence. My sister Sidonie, several cousins and neighbors, and I decide we would integrate the White pool in Eatonton, Georgia. Bolstered by my mother’s donation of 50 cents for each child, we begin to walk across the railroad tracks.

We arrived at the pool, which we discovered was nearly three times the size of the pool we’d been swimming in. As soon as we placed our small Black bodies in the pool, the White children got out, but after a few minutes, one decided to get back in. The little girl spoke to me; she was about 3 or 4 years older.

“You’re related to Florence, aren’t you?” she asks. “You look just like her.”

I had never heard my grandmother’s name without a handle on it. “I am Mrs. Florence James’ granddaughter,” I said.

“Oh, I just love Florence so much! She used to clean house for us. When you go home, tell her ‘Miss Sally’ says ‘hey’.”

I talked to the little girl for a while, not really because I wanted to, but because I wanted her to notice that I kept stressing that my grandma should have a “Mrs.” in front of her first name. I used my most proper tones, but the little girl never took the hint.

This was my first experience with the figure of the Black Mammy, someone who belonged to her employers, whose love is assumed, even required. She doesn’t work for a paycheck. The money is incidental; the real compensation is her pure joy in laboring for her White employers. But she can never be an equal, even to a child. And she was my blood.

I’ve thought on that sunny afternoon many times. I was a child who’d been raised with a sense of my own middle-class entitlement, but in a few seconds, that girl stripped me of that, and reminded me of what my place was supposed to be–beneath her.  She didn’t mean the slightest bit of harm, but she harmed me anyway.

*

Yesterday, I went to see the film, The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same title, about the friendship in 1960s Mississippi between a privileged White woman and a group of black domestics. There have been several well-known Black entertainers who have endorsed the film, not the least of which is Viola Davis, the actress who plays Aibileen, the main Black character. Filmmaker Tyler Perry loves the film as well.

And there have been individual Black women online who have tried to counter the “bad press” generated by other Black women who have reviewed the movie negatively; both Martha Southgate and Valerie Boyd have been disappointed in the movie in different ways. But other Sisters praise the movie and say that we Black folks need to understand that all stories should be told. We should not be classist, especially about the past.

Yet, I write about working class Black folks and domestics in my own fiction constantly, so in this case, it’s not the story of Black domestics that I resent–or that the story the movie is based on was written by a White woman. And I don’t resent seeing Black women looking unglamorous in frumpy uniforms onscreen. I’m not embarrassed by them. Why should I be, when I’m related to women just like them?

What I resent are the tone-deaf depictions like the ones I saw onscreen yesterday. For example, there are no Black husbands in this film onscreen; there are three Black men in the film, but presumably, all of them are single. Aibileen overhears Minnie’s husband beating her when the two women are on a phone call, but we never see the man. (He’s the only physically abusive domestic partner in the movie, by the way.)

And we never find out who impregnated Aibileen years before and gave her a son. Was Aibileen’s an immaculate conception? Was she once married but now a widow or divorced? Was she abandoned by her son’s father? He’s never mentioned, to my recollection.

There are many historical issues with the film as well. The White husbands of these women are benevolent, fuzzy creatures, yet at this time in Jackson, Mississippi, the White Citizens council (mentioned only once in the film) was in full force, and they were public face of the domestic terrorist group, the KKK. We hear of civil rights activist Medgar Evers’s death, but we don’t see the killing, and there’s a vague “they” who seem to be responsible for Evers’s assassination; but again, there are no fingers pointed at any of the White men we see onscreen.

The meanest person in the film and the person with the most power is a White woman. A woman without a job. And she is cartoonish in her villainy, making it very simple to pretend she’s not real.

This film focuses on giving power to Black women, but none of them can claim that power without White assistance. Martha Southgate already has written eloquently about the fact that Civil Rights was not the purview of White Southerners, but rather Black southerners.  You would never know that by looking at this movie.

Even when Minnie, the other main Black character (played by Octavia Spencer), decides to act alone on her rage, she does so in a way that is (to me) morally transgressive; when her employer fires her, she bakes a pie using her own feces as an ingredient and feeds it to the woman in retaliation. As I sat there in the audience and listened to the guffaws of the White moviegoers at the “feces pie” scene, I could only think, what has become of a woman who gathers her body waste in her actual hands and cooks with it, in her own kitchen? Where were her children while she was stirring up feces? How can she or her home ever be clean again?

For me, it was not the humorous, empowering moment it was intended to be, but rather tragic and pathetic. It made me want to weep for Minnie. And equally as important, if Minnie had ever informed her Mississippi employer of her actions in real life, she would have been strung up and lynched, or at the very least beaten violently.

But the most disturbingly unrealistic aspect of this movie is that we never see the personal lives of the Black women who work as “The Help.” Almost every time they appear on screen, they are either tending to White others, or they are talking about White others’ goings on. To see this movie, one would think that these Black women had no other concerns than the Whites they work for. However, the White women—even the villains—all have personal lives separate from the Blacks’.

For me, the lack of Black female interior life was what angered me the most—that and the lack of any real affection toward Black children in the movie. No Black children were embraced or kissed in this film, while White children were hugged and kissed all the time, the implication being that yes, Black children were emotionally neglected, but this neglect was for the greater good: so that the children of White women could receive it all.

*

There already is Oscar buzz surrounding Viola Davis for her depiction of Aibileen. But I can’t help feeling extremely disappointed in Davis and the other Black women who agreed to act in this film. These are Black women who are plenty old enough to know the history of their foremothers but who either didn’t notice what was wrong in the script, or didn’t speak up—if they had, this would have been a different movie, despite the issues with the book.

And how many Black women who are defending this movie don’t see the serious flaws, either, the glaring historical and emotional anachronisms throughout? Instead, they are bending over backwards to try to understand a continuing legacy of White southern paternalism.

At the very beginning of The Help, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) poses the question to Aibileen, “How did you feel, leaving your own child while you took care of other people’s children?”

That question is never answered.

Aibileen’s son’s life isn’t explored, even in flashback; she only talks briefly about the horrible way in which he died.  We only see his picture. It is as if his only contribution to the movie is to provide motivation for Aibileen’s later actions, after he’s dead. Her mother’s love, her mother’s grief, is condensed into 2 or 3 minutes. And in reality, she doesn’t claim her own voice—as a mother, as a woman, or someone who has her own inner mystery. She has no voice unless someone White is in the room.

Much has been made of Viola Davis’s acting skills, that in this one early scene the weighted absence of her silence somehow says it all. And it does, but not to answer the question posed to her; rather, it says something about the novelist who wrote this book and Tate Taylor, the writer who wrote the screenplay.

They just didn’t get it.

Nobody’s calling them racists—at least I’m not—or mean-spirited, or out to bring down The Black Community With A Big C. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t get anything about the real Black women who lived in Mississippi in 1963, those women who endured and resisted without “help” and worked in White folks’ kitchens and raised and loved Black children and hoped those children could avoid the lynch mobs to push the next generation to something better.

That story would have been a tougher one to tell–and a tougher one to swallow for a moviegoer who craved the Jim Crow Cliffs Notes; it probably wouldn’t have been funny, but neither was Mississippi in 1963.  But not only did Stockett and Taylor not get those Mississippi Sisters, they didn’t even get the universal human condition. And that’s just a colorblind shame.

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62 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam N. permalink
    August 11, 2011 9:16 am

    Thanks for this review. I am a white male, in my 40′s. Both my wife & I enjoyed this book. But now that I read your review I understand how flawed it is. I am Jewish and I have often seen in books, movies etc that Jews are depicted in ways that are very damaging (subtle, but damaging none the less). So your critique of this book resonates strongly with me.

    I will say that as someone who read this book without your critical eye, I didn’t see the African American women as helpless or pathetic. I saw them as mostly strong, mostly wise and putting up with an impossible situation but not giving into it.

    • Laurie Cates permalink
      August 11, 2011 12:25 pm

      Sam N. I have not seen this movie, but I have read the book. The first thought I had after reading this review was that the book depicted the women very differently. I read them as being strong and courageous. I, too, did not feel like they gave in to society but rather persevered through difficult times.

      I am sad, as usual, that the movie did not depict these women in the same manner. Shame on Hollywood.

  2. Zoe permalink
    August 11, 2011 10:35 am

    I am a black woman in my 40s. I haven’t seen the film yet, though I did read the book. I thought the book was a good read, although not without flaws. I am curious as to whether you read the book and what you see as the differences, if any, between the book and the movie.

    • August 13, 2011 7:06 pm

      Hey there:

      Yes, I did read the book, and I found the same serious, disturbing issues. There IS more of a back story for the Black women, but again, 85-90% of their internal dialogues surround their White employers; they are preoccupied with “their” White folks. The White heroine, however, has a rich internal dialogue that takes her away from the Black women constantly.

      Take care,
      HFJ

      • Joanna permalink
        August 19, 2011 11:38 am

        I feel like that is what this story is meant to do. I agree with everything you are saying and how such things continue to be perpetuated in our society. What I enjoy about this movie/book is that it takes a stab at white people and our historical ignorance at such issues. Unfortunately white people are sooo benevelled by our guilty past it is almost impossible to slap complete reality on the audience. (unfortunate absolutely)

        I was impressed by the under tones of the book and how the author really seemed to speak for and to the white people of the story. I personally beleive if any progress is to be made there is a lot of accountability that white americans need to take. This story/book in my opinion is a gift to all of our society in that….if nothing else white people are talking. White people don’t talk about race or issues surrounding race this movie forces them to.

        Although all opinions are wonderful and the discussion should and NEEDS to occur … I think we need to be very careful not to take sides on how we feel about the movie/book…but try to welcome the conversation. Unfortunately that might be all the larger society can handle just now.

        Respectfully,
        A white lady fighting for the concept of White Priveledge to be believed.

  3. Barbara Soloski Albin permalink
    August 11, 2011 11:19 am

    I am a white woman in my early 60′s. I read the book when it first came out (to me it was just another book and not even a good one) and decided to see the movie yesterday in order to be able to participate in the discussions. For those who are disappointed by the book, the movie is MUCH worse, poorly interpreted from the book, the characters one dimentional, cartoonish in nature, both white and black women. I would be embarassed to have participated in this movie, whatever my color was, and yet the movie has a cast of many well-known actors. In the year 2011, it is time for authors to write on subjects fiction or non-fiction that retain some truth when it comes to race, religion, age, gender, etc. To me it is a movie that should not receive any recognation when it comes time for awards, but then knowing how Hollywood works, nothing will surprise me!

  4. Lee permalink
    August 11, 2011 11:40 am

    Like Sam, I, too, am a white male in his 40s, but substitute his Jewish identity for mine, a gay male in the deep South, partnered (well, we are actually MARRIED where it is legal) with 3 toddlers of our own. When I saw the first the ads for the film, my stomach just turned. Just as you have written, it seemed to trivialize the immense struggles of blacks in the post-War south, to reconfigure them as comedy— but I can’t help but wonder FOR WHO? I know that many young black people today seem to have no appreciation for the civil rights struggles of the 50s-70s, nor even an awareness of the Names they should know. (It’s sad, but true, for the gay community as well).

    This is truly heartbreaking. As you know, in American culture, it doesn’t take long for “cinema reality” to replace actual reality, and before long it becomes gospel. For example, I have met numerous well-meaning but scripturally illiterate Christians who began believing that the eye-plucking crows in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” was based on gospel accounts in the Bible. Just tragic.

    Viola Davis is an amazing actress who should have received an Oscar for “Doubt” several years ago. Let’s hope this film gets buried quickly so that she has another, better opportunity for recognition.

  5. Angela Gamblin permalink
    August 11, 2011 11:53 am

    Excellent. Thank you for this insightful piece. Watching the t.v. ads for this film made me feel really uneasy and I couldn’t say for certain why. I’ve watched many old Hollywood films. Those ads, and now some spoilers I’ve seen are uncomfortably reminiscent of them. It may as well be Louise Beavers and Claudette Colbert in the respective rolls.
    Thanks again

  6. Mak permalink
    August 11, 2011 11:58 am

    Excellent analysis and review, Ms. Jeffers, as usual. You should have national syndication with posts this thoughtful and well-written. I found your point about Abilene being silent when asked how she felt leaving her children to take care of someone else, paticularly telling of the weakness of this story. This is the clearest indicator that someone not of color wrote this. As your review so eloquently suggests, she doesn’t say anything because the White author, nor the white screenplay writer know what to put in her mouth. People of color and even more so working class people of color are invisible. And this story which makes the claim that it is a story about “The Help” perpetuates our invisibility by suggsting that our voice is voicelessness.

    • Yolanda permalink
      September 12, 2011 1:31 pm

      I know I’m late in the discussion but I hear what you’re saying and disagree. I did not read the book and only saw the movie so maybe I missed something. When I saw that part of Abilene being silent when asked about her child, I saw it as her not wanting to share so much with this young white girl she was just sitting down to talk to for the first time. It took her a minute to open up and when she did, it was in the context of the business at hand – describing her experiences as a domestic nothing more. The question about her son was a deeply personal question especially considering her feelings about his passing. I could see myself reacting that way. It’s like when you’re at your job, do you share everything about your life or are your conversations shaped by what you’re doing at work?

  7. Scott Christopher permalink
    August 11, 2011 1:16 pm

    Appreciating your intelligence in analyzing this film, Ms. Jeffers, I found it insightful in understanding more deeply my grandmother and mother. Reading your review, it recurred to me that my grandmama worked cleaning white homes as well, and I epiphanically understood the loving rigidity and clarity my mama employed at times to ensure that I was never forced into a similar profession. It is a poignant discovery; and I again, thank you.

    I am a 35 year old Black Man who has not seen the film, but cringed at the previews. My concern was that yet another film depicting Blacks in a derogatory manner would receive great attention and high acclaim. Certainly, Black history has to be told in its entirity to ensure that we all learn our lessons well, but the perspective is key in the telling. We all would love to know more of our grandparents and parents who were marginalized fresh off of holocaust unlike any other in human history, but we want the personalities to have “color” and be accurate. This would provide us the information and the inpetus to advance our society and our world beyond the sickness that would create such oppressive systems.

    But you know; I want to see our warriors on film as well. And not some tragic negro who is martyred, emasculated and/or driven mad by their own contradictions. We don’t see much of the absolutely victorious sister or brother- Harriet Tubman, Queen Nzinga, Moses Dixson, Martin Delany. My angst at this film was that it would perpetuate the stereotype that Blacks are either too weak or too bold to be free. Thanks again, Sista!

    • Rissi permalink
      August 11, 2011 8:26 pm

      I am an Afro-Trinidaian, and I grew up watching the series “Shaka Zulu”. I agree that there are many Black heros and I would love to see their stories told, good and bad, especially since Shaka as described by my African friend was considered a very bad man.

  8. August 11, 2011 1:19 pm

    Thanks for watching this movie and critiquing it. I hope your opinion of the movie wakes people up.

  9. August 11, 2011 2:15 pm

    Thank you so much for this incisive review. It helped clarify my own unease with the story and affirmed my strongest objection to the book–that pie thing is just plain wrong. The stunt on which the whole plot hinges is completely out of keeping with the feisty yet dignified Minny. It rang false when I read the book and seemed simply ridiculous. Worse, the gimmick is indeed “morally transgressive” for it violates the self-respect and pride that are at the heart of the character.

    Cooking is a creative extension of self. As those who have labored in kitchens for generations can testify, it often has been one of the sole means of self expression available. Minny is an artist and to have her sully her art for the sake of the plot is a cheap trick.

  10. August 11, 2011 3:07 pm

    This is the best review I’ve read- I found the book uncomfortable in the same way-

    and not a good way.

  11. August 11, 2011 3:34 pm

    Very good review and I’ve read quite a few in the black blogosphere which are similar in concept and content. I noticed the mainstream reviewers have raved over the book and the movie. In fact, I viewed a brief interview of Viola Davis in which she was touched by the public embracing this movie. “Perspectives-Another Way To View! Hmmm…….

  12. jeni permalink
    August 11, 2011 4:32 pm

    Some of what was left out in the movie was left out in the book. There is a glaring absence of continued grief or any exploration of the death of Aibileen’s son. The screenwriter did not correct this issue. In the book, Minnie’s family life is depicted and her husband is abusive. The book does not go into the area of who the malevolent white men are who blind a young man and get away with it. There are racist politicians–Hilly’s husband, Skeeter’s temporary fiance–but not much personal examination by Skeeter of her privilege as the daughter of a cotton plantation owner. I’m annoyed that Emma Stone is getting so much attention when Skeeter and Stockett are the frames for what ought to be the real story–the real story of Aibileen and Minnie.

  13. Aaron permalink
    August 11, 2011 6:04 pm

    Just curious, have you read the book? Some of the questions you pose here are dealt with in the book, if what somewhat poorly, particularly in regards to the men. In reading the book, all the men were secondary as were the historical events including the death of Medgar Evers. It seems the author chose a reactionary response from the women as opposed to making it a focal point. Much of what we do in society today. A lot of people ignore the news and only react when it affects them.

    You made some good points of what should have been included, but those are your choices. Much of what you wanted to tackle were more suited to a trilogy or a mini-series. Granted the author took on a controversial subject that most will never agree on, but it is her right, as is yours to criticize. She did not write this screenplay, and Viola Davis is not a big enough star to demand script changes. I’m sure she is glad to be working in a role that will give her visibility in her career, regardless of her personal view of the work. Don’t many of us object to tasks set by management in our jobs but do it anyway because we need that paycheck?

  14. Drewnell Thomas permalink
    August 11, 2011 6:52 pm

    I have not read the book, and I have not seen the movie. However, my mother and grandmother were maids, but their integrity did not allow their personal values of trust and honor to be compromised or their children to be deprived of love and affection, no matter how dissatisfied they became with the circumstances of their employment.

  15. August 11, 2011 8:26 pm

    Thanks for this review. I am a young Caribbean black male, who’ve never read or endeavored to pursue the harshness of my black past, and less even that of Afro-American, if only for the sole reason to pursue a future that isn’t based on a reminder of the hurts and pains of my fore-parents, none of whom, by the way, thought it fitting to even connect our generations. My life’s-story is centered around my maternal & paternal brothers n sisters and their maternal parents, so then presented the notion that ‘I have no need for what was before’. Fact or Fiction, I candidly admit that from the trailer of this movie I felt no compulsion to see it, because the elements of the character’s thoughts and actions as depicted in the book, could not have been justifiably captured on film short of a single season nighttime drama. Though it was authored by a white woman, I was moved by her Too Little, Too Late dedication, fully appreciating her fortitude in recording her perceptions and giving her ‘help’ immortality. In short, this if no other, is a start. Thanks to my Latin American colleagues for motivating me to actual purchase this novel.

  16. Barbara permalink
    August 12, 2011 9:20 am

    THANK YOU !!!!!!!! THANK YOU!!!!!!!! THANK YOU!!!!!!!! AND THANK YOU AGAIN for this review!

  17. Zippy The Pinhead permalink
    August 12, 2011 3:29 pm

    “As I sat there in the audience and listened to the guffaws of the White moviegoers at the “feces pie” scene, I could only think, what has become of a woman who gathers her body waste in her actual hands and cooks with it, in her own kitchen?” How, in a dark theater, do you know that the ones laughing were White?

    • August 12, 2011 4:54 pm

      Usually, I don’t answer comments because I don’t like to get into a back and forth, but in this case, I think you asked an extremely fair question. Here’s the answer.

      1) I live in a nearly all-White town. This town used to have “sundown” laws for Black folks, so unless one is associated with the University, most Black folk live the next town over.

      2) I walked in when the theater was full and I’m nosy, so I looked around.

      3) When the movie was nearly over, I stood at the back of the theater, because, again, I was personally interested in the racial make-up of the audience, just in case Black folks had walked in. Again, all white folks–or very light-skinned Latinos or Natives (who usually don’t identify as Black out here. Except me. I’m Afro-Cherokee.)

      4) I can see in the dark. It’s not that hard. And it’s not that hard to spot people’s races, either. Contrary to popular opinion, we aren’t invisible when the lights go off. But in addition, our theaters usually have at least two lights on so people can see where they are going.

      5) You don’t really care one way or the other about how I could see.:-)–But dang, that’s your only rebuttal?:-)

      6) But here’s the deal: does it matter whether the audience was Black or White?

      Anyway, I’m glad I’ve made you uncomfortable enough to try to poke logic holes in what I said.:-) So, come on back and read me again, and I’ll be sure to annoy you and put you on the moral defensive on a regular basis. I promise. Better yet, buy one of my three award-winning poetry books. My beauty and brilliance as a poet will really piss you off.:-)

      I’ll let you have the last word here.:-) Bye-bye, now.

      HFJ

      • August 13, 2011 8:14 am

        Just for the record…. I love you Honorée Fanonne Jeffers! :-)

  18. Barbara Soloski Albin permalink
    August 12, 2011 5:30 pm

    Honoree – I did much the same thing you did, maybe for different reasons. The theater was fairly full when I got there and then the lights went down. Yes, I heard the laughs at things that weren’t funny, but that was after about 30 minutes, while I wasn’t sure I was going to stay. When the show was over, I waited to see the make-up the the crowd, 90% white, the rest A/A and maybe a few Hispanic. I tried to listen to conversations as I was leaving the theater, it was hard to, one couple around my age, were discussing that this was the way it was in the South and it wasn’t that long ago and they hoped things didn’t get bad again. I asked the lady next to me if she had read the book, and I got a blank stare and then a no. As I told you entering for the next show was a young white woman with at least 6+ children under the age of 8 probably down to 3. I wasn’t quite sure what she was thinking, but then I am getting use to that these days. My feelings are the same, the book did have some of the details that you did not see in the movie, the script was poorly done based on the book, and all of the major characters were embarassing to watch and listen to! I should mention that one AA lady who came with her friends who were white, spent the entire show watchng the movie from the floor that led to an outer exit, it happened to be near my seat.

  19. August 12, 2011 5:44 pm

    Yes that’s what I’m afraid of …..that I’ll see more of the floor than the movie!

  20. August 13, 2011 5:01 am

    “…Much has been made of Viola Davis’s acting skills, that in this one early scene the weighted absence of her silence somehow says it all. And it does, but not to answer the question posed to her; rather, it says something about the novelist who wrote this book and Tate Taylor, the writer who wrote the screenplay.
    They just didn’t get it.
    Nobody’s calling them racists—at least I’m not—or mean-spirited, or out to bring down The Black Community With A Big C. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t get anything about the real Black women…”

    ****************************************

    Sister, I cannot get with the program that “they just don’t get it”. Sorry, but they get it.
    These people are not ignoramuses (ignorami) whichever. They GET IT with a capital GET! Why do they even pose this question if they don’t get it? The deal is that they want to get that question out of the way quick, by showing the woman being unable to answer the question herself. She doesn’t know herself, so we don’t have to deal with it. OK, that’s out of the way, now down to the business of Mammyhood!!

    Too often we give them a pass as though the question is so deep that they can’t fathom it. Well if I put in place of a black mother, an asian mother. Then is the question too hard to get? Noo, no,no,no,no,no! NO, it’s selective ignorance. I refuse to believe that they don’t understand the black woman. Are we from Mars? No, we are women like all women. Pretending that they don’t understand allows them to continue with the degradation. If we start to believe that they don’t understand, then we give them permission to continue.

    They get it. Let’s be really real. The question is a huge monstrocity of an elephant sitting in the room!! They have learned to live with that huge elephant, gracefully dancing around that elephant, gliding around that monster of an elephant, living with that elephant, glancing at that elephant from time to time, but studiously ignoring that elephant, even as his presence dissolves their humanity. They KNOW it’s a devouring monster, but they ignore it. They excell at ignoring it. That doesn’t mean they don’t get it. Because IT is the inbred racism that society refuses to allow them to let go of. For white people to divest themselves of racism in this US of A , they are going to have to wage a protracted battle for their minds! Because this society continues to plant rot like this movie into the minds of white people! And most of them passively allow this to happen to them, without even a whimper of protest!

    They get it!!

    White People: Read a chapter from american history. The white youth of the 60s who were freedom fighters without even lifting their hands in battle! The youth— 19 and 20 year old white kids who were Freedom Riders!! And resisters! And marchers and protesters!! They refused to let rot be planted in their minds. They got it even at their tender young ages.

    http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/freedom-rides-1961

  21. DisgustedinFlorida permalink
    August 13, 2011 8:48 am

    Will we ever get off the plantation?

    And historians say the Willie Lynch Letter is a hoax. Really?

    I will not watch the movie. I did not read the book. I take exception in 2011 with a black woman the CEO of Xerox this is the best Hollywhitewood could come up with–how dare they and how dare that white woman write a book –the black characters sound like they came out of a Zora Neal Hurston book and the white characters surprise surprise are the Great White Saviors of blacks and speak “perfect” English.

    Shame on black people and the NAACP for supporting this nonsense. It is no wonder our children think Lil Wayne is Jesus. Whatever whites feed us we eat.

    Sick!

    • August 13, 2011 5:51 pm

      You must not be familiar with the body of work by my heroine, Zora Neale Hurston! Or maybe I’m misreading your statement.

      There’s a difference between the true to life rendering of black life and the empowerment of black women and how they fought to achieve it in the times they were confined in, and the rendering of black women from a white woman influenced by racism as what we have in The Help.

      There’s a difference between artistically portraying the rich, poetic language of the black folks of that era, by one who is familiar with it and respected it, such as my heroine Zora Neale Hurston, and the portraying of black language from a condescending perspective such as the author of The Help. I say it’s condescension because according to what was stated earlier, she misrepresented the way black folks said “Lawd” as “Law” which makes no sense if you know anything about the rules of syntax in black vernacular.

      http://nachalooman.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/im-rereading-zora-neale-hurston/

      Everything else you said I agree with.

      • Joanna permalink
        August 19, 2011 11:15 pm

        I think “Law” was a play on words to take the thought even deeper.

    • wanda permalink
      August 14, 2011 8:20 pm

      I agree with everything that you have written and I am so happy to read that others feel like this is something that is not entertaining. I have not nor will I read the book or watch the movies. This is not something that needs to be glorified. It happened, and it is so her story. Thanks for this wonderful review.

  22. August 13, 2011 12:32 pm

    Thank you for writing and sharing your review.

  23. renmandfx permalink
    August 13, 2011 3:13 pm

    “She has no voice unless someone White is in the room.”

    is it just possible that this IS the point of the book and the movie?

    That all the women of that time were unable to give voice to anything that troubled them? To their grief? Their true loves? Their hopes? Their dreams?

    That they had been given a “script” if you will by the Whites and knew to stay on script for fear of the horrors that going it would definitely bring?

    Realistically, it is not the purview of this film to function as a full history lesson of the times and of the people making history then. Rather it is a very small slice of life that can, upon reflection upon it, force us all to consider just what “really” not “reel-ly” did happen.

    Thank you for a most thought provoking reflection upon “The Help.”

    • Lexi permalink
      August 13, 2011 6:51 pm

      Thank you for this comment!!!! I think a lot of people are reading too much into the story…or what they think it should have depicted. The story is the writers to tell…it’s her art and her truth through fiction, with some historical references. The story isn’t about the Civil Rights Movement, it’s about the “The Help”, from a young White woman’s view…so of course, it is going to be different and lack more meat and potatoes (per se) as if it was written by a Black person.

      I saw the movie today and thought it was solid. As for the question to Viola’s character about her son. I think everyone knew the answer to how it made her feel…it was written all over her face and through body language. It was gut-wrenching and pained her…some things are better shown than said. Sometimes we (society) are so far removed from history that we don’t take the time to REALLY think about the sacrifices and seemingly minute things in life that Black people were stripped of and humiliated by.

      Also, I don’t think it was the writers intention to make the men look bad by not showing their home life. You can only put so much in a two hour movie and they belonged in the background of the story, because it wasn’t about the men. It wasn’t even about the maids personally…it was to show how their employers had no regard for their personl lives or feelings and examples of things they endured.

      We are all entitled to our opinions, and it’s very interesting to read how they vary.

      • Brenda permalink
        August 14, 2011 2:50 pm

        Lexi, I agree with you, while a more in depth look into the personal lives of these characters would be more enlightening that was not the author’s intent. What astonished me was that whites would have blacks cook, clean, and even nurse their children, but would not dare to allow them to use their bathrooms and or allow them to have their food in the same place. It would seem to me that if you believe someone is full of diseases why would you have them prepare your food, clean your homes and or nurse and or take care of your children.
        The mind set of the people of this particular era and how it affected the lives of the people was my focus while reading this book and I believe that was the main intent of the author.

      • Bill permalink
        August 14, 2011 5:21 pm

        I agree that the reviewer misses the point of the movie. The movie is called The Help which tells us immediately that this story is being told from a white person’s point of view. Yes, the pie thing is a big problem for me as well, but overall I felt the story held together quite well and I felt it was very engrossing.

  24. John permalink
    August 13, 2011 4:47 pm

    I did see the movie, but not read the book, yet the one can see and possibly understand the remnants of slavery and cruel racial supremacy. It’s a long learned and imprinted process from generation to generation and bequeathed to the next generation. People need reminders of what hate does to society, and in the end, creates suffering and obstructs happiness. If one grows up still feeling undervalued by the parents, then that person seeks value from others by force. Isn’t it time to grow up to love ourselves as our Creator loved us. I have learned to review movies by defining their core values. I respect other reviewers who may see the elephant as a different creature. :)

  25. August 13, 2011 5:05 pm

    Thank you so much for your eloquent analysis of this film. There are so few films that tell our story on the front burner or as the main course. Unfortunately we often accept the role of the side dish as offered by Viola Davis even in all of exquisite acting.

  26. A. Leahy permalink
    August 13, 2011 5:49 pm

    I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but I’m glad to see your discussion here. I’m trying to write about this subject matter myself and grappling with what I remember and don’t know as I, a white woman born into the 1960s, try to find the words.

  27. Terrie permalink
    August 13, 2011 6:36 pm

    I read the book and took the time to see the movie today with my 21 year-old daughter. My opinion is that we are in a no-win situation when it comes to any conversation when it comes to race relations in the South. My hometown is Marietta, Georgia (Yes, Sherman marched through on his way to burn down Atlanta.) As I grew up, my family had no issue with seeing the “blacks” and “n******s” as a group to be treated differently and jokes at their expense were quite common in our house. Because of the way I was raised, it has been a very specific focus on my part to be the generation that changed this in our family. My kids do not give thought one way or the other to what race their friends may be. And yes, they have friends from many backgrounds and ethnicity.

    With that said, I enjoyed the movie and the book. But you guessed it, I am a white woman. (Actually more of a tannish-beige) I do not claim to know the struggles or private lives of these women. However, I will say, it seems that no matter what mentioned, filmed or written about this period of time, it will go the wrong way. Maybe we should just quit talking about it altogether so the next generation can have a chance of normal relations.

    • August 13, 2011 6:57 pm

      Terrie:

      If you ever want another comment of yours published here, don’t EVER use the n-word–even with asterisks–on a comment to my blog. And I’m publishing this comment because this is clearly your first time here, and you don’t really get this is a Black house.:-) So we don’t allow White folks privileges with racial epithets.

      I say this with love and respect.

      Take care,
      HFJ

      • Terrie permalink
        August 13, 2011 7:32 pm

        Honoree,

        I appreciate your reply and allowing my comment to post. Unfortunately, I think your response actually exemplifies the point I was trying to make. You and your readers/responders are clearly upset with the portrayal of the key characters in this movie and book. My comment was an attempt to enter the conversation with an honest and open dialogue about the “other” side of this issue. The reality is that as white woman I was equally upset with the characature treatment of the villians in this story. My point was to say that this issue has many tenacles and to share a view into my world growing up and what I have had to change in order to give my children a different view of the world. Whether I put the forbidden word in this comment box or not, it is a fact that the comments happened and it had a bearing on me as a child.

        You are clearly an educated, enlighted and motivated woman that is using this platform to make your point of view known. I think that is great. But to forbid this even as a point of shared dialogue only inhibits our opportunity to have meaningful conversation that is the beginning of hope to understand another point of view necessary to heal the tear in the fabric of our shared humanity.

        I will respectfully bow out of the conversation and I can assure you, I will make sure I do not attempt to reach out in a “black house” as a white person. Unfortunately I do not think this issue will ever have a real resolution until both sides of this can be discussed in an open way and that’s too bad. I was under the impression that this blog had the potential to allow the conversation if handled in a sensitive and respectful tone.

        I sincerely apologize for any offense, it was certainly not my intent.

        Regards and best wishes for your future endeavors,
        Terrie

      • August 13, 2011 8:01 pm

        Terrie:

        I appreciate your commenting. And if you’d like to come back again, read the blog, and comment again and you keep it polite, I’ll appreciate it as well. You do not have to agree with me–if you’ve noticed, there are many people who made comments who did not–you just have to be polite.

        Last I heard the n-word was not a polite or “sensitive and respectful” word, especially in an interracial dialogue about a painful issue. I’m a little bewildered as to how you would think it would ever be “sensitive and respectful”, given this subject on which I wrote and given that I’m an African American women.

        I don’t have any problem with any of the opinions you asserted in your comment, and I’m confused that you would try to characterize my asking you not to use a racial epithet–again on a Black woman’s blog– to make your point that I’m trying to shutdown dialogue, or in your words, to “forbid this as a point of shared dialogue.” So I’m supposed to let somebody White use the n-word–and thus insult me and my community–on my blog in order to allow a free dialogue? That’s pretty masochistic.:-)

        And by the way, I don’t even allow my BLACK commenters to use the n-word in their comments in my “house”.

        Since I started this blog, I have tried to keep it a very polite space–and a loving, human being space–for people of all complexions. This is a place where I try to do right. Therefore, I have to be very careful what I allow, because this IS a blog about “Gender, Politics, Writing, and Race.” Those are very fraught subjects and “dialogue” can breakdown; it can get really tacky and really abusive very easy even when people are face-to-face, much less the internet. So I have to monitor folks behavior.

        Further, if you asked any of my other regular readers who are White–and there are a bunch of those– they will tell you that I go out of my way to be very respectful towards people of all complexions on this blog, because this is a 1) a public place and 2) this is a place where I am trying to do some work to make my own corner of the world better. Thus, I do not allow racial epithets, hate speech against women or LGBT people or even profanity–that’s never going to be part of my “dialogue.” I know the traditional rules of civility have broken down elsewhere on the internet, but again, this is my blog. And I have to draw the line somewhere.

        Best to you and take care.

        HFJ

  28. Barbara Soloski Albin permalink
    August 13, 2011 7:57 pm

    Terrie, I am a white woman who has been able to participate in all conversations on this site without any problems. Waiting for the next generation is not the answer, as that is what people use to do. I am old enough (63+) to be of the generation that thought we had done something to make things better and I am greatly disappointed by the reversal in this country re: race relations. I had made earlier comments on the fact that ALL the charactors in the movie were one dimentional and that the director and/or script writer can take credit for make the entire cast look terrible.

  29. Barbara Soloski Albin permalink
    August 14, 2011 10:14 pm

    I thought the book held tgether better than the movie. Without understanding where all the characters were coming from or what they had gone through to get there, it became just another movie that started in the middle! I also am going to take the chance and say that this book is about 40 years too late and based on what I have seen of the author,. she is not old enough to have lived through the 1960′s, and if she did she was a small child.

  30. Dee R. permalink
    August 15, 2011 9:22 am

    You mentioned that no black children were embraced or kissed in this movie and that is not true, Minny showed affection to her children which were the only black children in this film. They didn’t stray too far from the story line to which is probably a good thing because unless you go into great detail about these women’s individual lives then that would be very poor writing. Everyone is entitiled to their opinions but quite honestly, Many people must not enjoy anything produced in Hollywood because of the content, there’s always tasteless and tacky content in most movies and TV Shows.

    • August 15, 2011 11:19 am

      Dear Dee:

      Again, I usually don’t respond to comments, but in this case you’re accusing me of not telling the truth.

      Think VERY carefully. Did you see Minny KISS OR EMBRACE her children in the movie? She put her hand up and patted her daughter on the face in the scene when she sent her off to be a domestic and she patted her children on the shoulder to send them to bed in another scene. That’s it. No embraces and no kisses of Black children. I was taking notes in the theater.:-)

      Meanwhile, the little White girl that Aibileen takes care of–not any Black woman’s biological child–is not only hugged and kissed, she is told constantly “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” There is not one Black child in that film that is told a variation of that. Not one. And there’s also the lengthy scene between Constantine and Skeeter where she comforts Skeeter because she didn’t get asked to the dance. I guess the Black girls didn’t have their own dances, huh?:-)–Of course they did, but they just had them across town at their segregated school.

      And if you tell me that Black women “during that time” didn’t love their children or hug or kiss, I can point you to old photographs of Black family pictures where Black women are just hugging and kissing all up on their kids. I remember those old Black ladies at my Grandma’s clapboard church with the outhouse out back used to kiss and hug me so much I would run from them. They also told me I was pretty, smart, and would grow up to be somebody. This was in the South in 1972, a mere nine years after this movie is set. Things don’t change that much in folkways in 9 years.

      –By the way, the argument that Black women didn’t have “natural motherly affection” was how White southern slaveholders justified separating slave mothers from their children and selling off the children to other plantations and even out of state. This separation of families is well-documented. And at the same time, pro-slavery writers were writing about the wonderful “Black Mammy” who loved her White “master’s children” so much. They never mentioned “Mammy’s” own children and how they, too, were loved in those pro-slavery tracts. However, thank goodness Frederick Diouglass, Harriet Jacobs and scores of other Black writers during that time did document the great love and “natural affection” between Black mothers and their children.

      Feel free to watch the movie again so you can see I’m telling the truth:-) You don’t have to come back and apologize, though.:-) That’s all right.

      Take care,
      HFJ

  31. August 15, 2011 11:28 am

    I saw the movie this weekend and overall I was disappointed. While I haven’t really settled on the complete source of my discontent, I did think The Help was a film worthy of seeing and I will read the book. I’m not quite satisfied with your review either. I am not sure it criticizes the movie for the right reasons.

    Given my bais as an highly educated woman, I don’t think it was possible or necessary for the full complexities of Aibileen or Minnie’s lives to be explored in the detail you desired. For me, the gaps in the story as depicted on screen were just as important as what was included. The film showed exactly how whites thought of and how they treated blacks in the South during the Jim Crow era. It showed the “good upstanding citizens” who raised money for African children yet wouldnt give common dignity and respect to those blacks in thier communities. I think this film was created to show the relationship between whites and blacks specifically. By portraying a black and white prespective anyone can enter this experience and learn a bit about history and a lot about TODAY. Again, I may be assuming a more sophisticaated viewer who can flesh out some of the subtext based on their knowledge of history and social issues; but what’s absent or lacking in the film has the potential to engage the audience and leave them uncomfortable enough to ask questions and seek answers in thier own communities.

    I agree that Minnie’s actions were tragically sad. But I don’s assume that that representation is the only agency that black women had during the 60′s. I know fully well it is not. Likewise, Viola Davis is not the sole representation of present day African American women who achieve. If she were awarded the Oscar — good for her. We cannot depend on Hollywood to inform us of everything we need to know about life. The entertainment industry is an articitic business, it is not responsible for educating us. We who are consumers of this media are responsible to take steps to inform ourselves and to use what we know to fill in the gaps where needed and make the world a more just place.

    • September 14, 2011 4:22 pm

      Kesha, I agree with your assessment of the film. I just finished the book, and it does fill in some of the blanks that the movie didn’t. However, I agree that the criticism here is inaccurate, because this is not a story written about the life of a sophisticated, urban white woman, but about a white, country girl who because of her mother’s lack of love and affection, caused her to want to do something rebellious. As such, it has all the awkwardness and self-contentedness one would expect in that instance. Of course she didn’t see things from the domestic workers’ perspective. Of course she didn’t see things from a black perspective-who did in Jackson, Mississippi. I didn’t see Skeeter as a heroine, especially since she got outta town as quickly as she did. I saw her as the coward she was. If the story had been written the way this criticism suggested, it would have been an entirely different book.

  32. August 18, 2011 10:19 am

    Thank you SO much for writing that. When I watched this movie, I became upset. I posted my feelings on Facebook and people immediately started questioning my anger. The way you wrote this embodied EVERYTHING that I felt. I am tired of movies being made where the oppressor becomes the hero, as if the oppressed did NOTHING for themselves. Thank you for being better than most, finding the words to express my feelings as well as yours, and finding an outlet to share these words with others.

  33. emma permalink
    August 18, 2011 9:04 pm

    I am a 46 year old African American Lady living in Mississippi. I haven’t read the book was planning on going to see the movie this Saturday with my husband. listening to your review makes me wonder if I want to see it now. I cant say that I know how my mother and grandmother felt when they worked or if they worked at the white folks house. But what i can tell you is that there was much, much LOVE in our house. Plenty of children and fathers to them all. But if it a story about the truth then if they can’t tell it then they shouldn’t bring it up!!!! Cause for what they do in Mississippi now, I know damn well it was hell back then.

  34. August 25, 2011 8:23 am

    Ok, originally when I heard about this movie, I thought it was going to be your typical well meaning but dumb “white people are the real heroes movie.” However, I am truly offended by this part:

    “Even when Minnie, the other main Black character (played by Octavia Spencer), decides to act alone on her rage, she does so in a way that is (to me) morally transgressive; when her employer fires her, she bakes a pie using her own feces as an ingredient and feeds it to the woman in retaliation. ”

    I will refrain from swearing here, but all the black women I know, including my fiance, are truly offended by filth to the point of being clean freaks. (In fact she’s been poor, and sometimes had to live in places that were not very nice, which was very tough on her.) This is hard on me at times, as I am a bit of a slovenly male, and she’s always calling me out on it.

    Now, I haven’t seen it in context, but I sincerely doubt I’m going to be able to get behind a movie that has something like this in it.

  35. Adrianna permalink
    September 5, 2011 4:11 pm

    I did not see The Help, as I am suspect of “others” telling our stories, but most certainly when Disney is behind the scenes in marketing. I did get dragged into seeing Columbiana, because my friend (who is Afro-Columbian) got excited about a film with an Afro Latina as the main character. We both should have known better…These movies make me think of both my grandmothers-strong women of color from seemingly different worlds, for whom Hollywood will never portray with accuracy, dignity and honor. We have before us the full array of African female stereotypes…sexualized, mammy, vengeful, crazed. Thank you for you review.

  36. September 14, 2011 4:13 pm

    I saw the movie, and then I read the book. As a black woman, I felt unnerved by the idea of a book about black women in Mississippi as domestics from the very beginning. In fact, I had the misfortune of sitting in at an all-white woman’s book club meeting, who had just read “The Help”, but I hadn’t. So I listened to their comments, and none of them seem to like the book very much. One woman stated that she’d never seen such selfish, lazy bitches in all her life; she said she grew up in Utah, and her mother did not have “Help”, except for her family’s. She was very annoyed with the book. So, I can say that not all white women felt good about this book/story.

    But I do agree with phillis’ comments about what was missed in the film, BUT I think an astute person would not have missed those things. It was clear to me that the book was written from the perspective of a scared, back-country white girl, who had no clue what the hell was going on around her. It was written from her very limited, myopic view of the world. At times while reading the book I thought to myself “Is she an idiot?” because she constantly missed the point.

    In many respects, the book is much more detailed about some of the things phillis mentions, so if a person is interested, they should read the book. But read it from the perspective that it is written from the view of someone who is totally clueless about life, as evidenced from her relationships with everyone in her life. She’s a real southern belle; dumb as she can be, and totally self-centered. It’s probably not a perspective readers are familiar with, but that’s what I got from it. Skeeter is just a fool, and in real life, they all would probably have gotten killed by a lynch mob.

  37. December 10, 2011 10:23 am

    I really enjoyed your review. I hope you don’t mind me using an excerpt, as I think your real life experience is in line with others I feature on my blog: http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com

    Thank you again for your eloquent, insightful observations.

    • December 10, 2011 4:28 pm

      No, I don’t mind as long as you attribute my quotes.:-) Seriously, thank you so much for reading and supporting the blog! I really appreciate you.

  38. March 4, 2012 10:53 am

    At the risk of sounding like I have completely surrendered to shameless and misguided hyperbole; this, I believe, is the best, most thoughtful review I have ever read of anything. Period.

Trackbacks

  1. The “Help” — An Open Letter to the Fans « Anna Renee is Still Talking
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  4. DJL @ NewBlackMan on: “The Year in ‘Race Matters’: (in case you missed this during the holiday) « No Tsuris
  5. On The Help, Viola Davis, And “Black Art” Vs. “Negro Respectability” « Phillis Remastered

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