Based on a 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help chronicles
the story of African American maids who raised the white children
of their employers. It's massive success is attributed to the fact
that it's one of Oprah Winfrey's influential book club titles. It
was only a matter of time before the film rights would be sold.
The film's lead character is the bookish white journalist
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan who is part of a debutante set in Jackson,
Mississippi. The sole ambition of her peers is to get married to a
wealthy man and get a loyal subservient (African American) maid.
Skeeter sticks out resisting marriage and her pursuit of a
career, to the point that her mother (The West Wing's Allison
Janney) suspects she is a lesbian. In addition Skeeter is vocal in
her discomfort about the spiteful racism of her friends.
She lands a job on a local newspaper to write a column on home
making tips without knowing any, perhaps because even though she is
a liberal, she still has taken advantage of cheap black female
domestic labour. She turns to Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) the
domestic of one of her friends to give her the answers to the
questions to feed her column which takes off and becomes very
As she develops a trusting relationship with Aibileen, she
decides that it would be a good idea to write a book from the
help's perspective. This is a dangerous prospect in the 1960's for
any black person to speak out openly and honestly about their lives
to a white person. The 1960's in the USA was a time in the Southern
States where a black man could get lynched for looking at a white
woman, or not getting off the pavement fast enough to make way for
any white person. The Jim Crow Law sanctioned the segregation of
public schools, public transport, public toilets, restaurants, and
drinking fountains. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans
with the open collusion of the police and state.
The domestics are initially wary and nervous to talk to Skeeter.
However after the civil rights activist Medgar Evers is
assassinated by a member of the White Citizen's Council they are
fuelled with enough rage to come forward with their poignant and
The book is accepted for publication by a New York editor, Ms
Stein (Mary Steenburgen from Curb Your Enthusiam) and Skeeter gets
a job in a publishing house, sharing her royalties with the other
The Help is beautifully acted with intelligence and nuance by
Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis and many have been mouthing Oscar
hopes for both actresses. It is also graced with the presence of
the screen icon Sissy Spacek. The heat and humidity of the
Mississippi drips through the screen from the locations. But the
film is syrupy and sentimental. It employs the risible use of farce
with an isolated revenge action by a maid when she bakes a pie with
a "secret ingredient" for her former tormenting employer.
Considering the historical context in which this was made, no
black woman or her family could have pulled such a stunt and got
off lightly! The Help blanches out the reality of African
American domestics and their mistresses in the 1960's Southern
states, so much so that the The Association of Black Women
Historians issued a damning statement about the film http://www.abwh.org/images/pdf/TheHelp-Statement.pdf<link>.
The Help perpetuates comfortable tropes in terms of the
representation of the African American female experience and
attitude: the silent suffering loving black woman; the sassy loud
greedy fat black woman. It then unleashes the other common casting
error in films of racial strife: the good white savior versus the
inhumane one-dimensional racism of the other white women. Black men
are absent, Aibilieen's son is dead and Minny's (Octavia Jackson)
partner is known only through evidence of his domestic violence.
Conversely all the white men are benign, inept or humane,
completely erasing the historical reality of their sexual abuse of
domestic servants and their part in viciously and sometimes
violently upholding Jim Crow laws.
In the film Skeeter shares her fortune with the maids who
provided her with testimonies, however in real life it is Kathryn
Stockett who runs away with the spoils. She was
sued unsuccessfully for a share of her earnings by her
brother's domestic servant, Ablene Cooper, who claimed the
character of Aibileen was based on her.
I left The Help with many thoughts around the economic capital
of Black women's stories and who actually gets to profit from them.
So far there has been no "commercially" successful cinema film
about black women directed, written or produced by black
women. The story of The Help as a book and film parallels and
continues this legacy. Black women's stories too often are
appropriated, whitewashed and made palatable for mainstream
audiences by mostly all-white productions. And yet it is virtually
impossible for any black female directors or writers to get films
greenlit by Hollywood studios.
When challenged about always playing the maid/Mammy roles in
Hollywod movies Hattie McDaniel retorted - "I'd rather play a maid
and make $700 a week, than be a maid for $7." This underpins the
economics of stories and acting. No actor will bite the hand that
feeds them and they are dependent on the stories that get financed
and made. There are many powerful stories to be told about the
complex, contradictory, difficult, love-hate relationships between
white children and their Black nannies, sadly The Help is not one