From Mary Burgan. Leave a comment or email Mary at [email protected].
In many societies women get help raising their children from family members or neighbors. After all, “it takes a village.” But in more complex industrialized and stratified societies, where women are isolated by class or a setting away from their natal families, they must hire other women to help them. In America, before the Civil Rights movement in the South, that “help” was always black, poorly paid and considered a part of the natural order of things.
Anyone, black or white, who grew up in this society has a story to tell about the “help.” That is why the film The Help is now being seen by many of those women who worked as domestic servants, who lived with such help or who heard about the system from their mothers.
The film is set in the 1960s South, and although the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers forms a turning point in the story, The Help is not so much a historical study as it is a film about an overlooked feature of racism in the South. Its power lies in its depiction of the daily lives of women affected by the system. These lives have often been passed over by history.
The Help segregates the good (black) lives from the bad (white) ones so starkly, though, that although it delights most of its audiences, it is not good history. In the acting, for example, the nuanced roles go to the wonderful black actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play the two leading black maids. Davis’s stoicism and dignity should bring her an Academy Award, and the way Spencer rolls her eyes in understanding the stupidity of her employers is priceless.
But the roles of the main white women, played by such competent actresses as Bryce Dallas Howard and Ahna O’Reilly, are over-simplified portraits of unrestrained feminine stupidity and racial fear. They only get to chew the scenery with their rage at being thwarted in their evil designs.
The stereotyping of the white women is a crowd-pleaser, but because the realities of black and white women in the South were so complicated, the film’s over-simplifications have generated much debate. Black women historians have condemned The Help for stereotyping the black women’s lack of education, while giving their stories to a naive white girl (Emma Stone) to tell.
Nevertheless, the brilliant restraint of Viola Davis’s performance as Abilene should dissipate any objection to the stilted speech she is given to speak. And it is true that too many stories about black experiences are given over to white figures to tell. Maybe the success of the narrative voice in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) set an example that has been difficult to avoid.
Also, see The Long Walk Home (1990). It was narrated by Mary Steenburgen, to be sure, but the superb acting of Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg in that neglected film gave a much better sense of possible relationships between black and white women during the Civil Rights movement than The Help does.
The depiction of the white women in The Help represents a more serious historical misunderstanding than its picture of black lives. Its white stereotyping hides the fact that the South’s caste and racial system was held in place because there were many caring and reasonable white women who took it for granted. The white employers were not all vile, but they lived complacently within the system — doing kindnesses to servants and feeling bad about the fact that they seemed fated to poverty.
In The Help, after all, the sympathetic older white women played for laughs by Sissy Spacek and Allison Janey, rejoice when their daughters get any comeuppance from the servants they mistreat, but they are not about to start a revolution against their Southern society.
The film barely touches the important fact that its courageous black women need the work, since there are few jobs for their men. And so they will go on trudging off to the kitchens and nurseries of white households — despite their incidental victory over the system in the film — because they must have the money. It took a huge social and political upheaval to change their need. And the revolution is not over yet — for all domestic workers in the North or in the South.