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.