The Help is a film everyone has heard about. When it was released in 2011, I dismissed it as mainstream fare. I was too cool for it, what with all my Fritz Lang films. When my GCSE RS teacher suggested we watch it during our module on racism, of course I dismissed it as typical chick flick fare. But I gave the same dismissal to 12 Years a Slave (2013) too – I was too busy with my Richard Ayoade films to care about a colonial legacy of racism.
Though based off a book, the film tricks the viewer into thinking Skeeter (publishing under an ‘Anonymous’ name in a small print run) is a real author who published an oral history of black maids from Jackson. I’d like to hope that book exists – or as an article, or something. It would be a real shame if those voices were lost to history. I’d love to read the book – just not the book the film is the basis of.
It’s easy to draw parallels to Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002). Skreever, like Cathy in Far from Heaven, is a sympathetic white. She questions the system as it is, breaches accepted social practices, talks to her maid as if she is a real human being. Her aim to publish African American voices is an admirable one, within a position of power where she can raise awareness to minority voices. Yet as a woman in the newspaper industry, she has a difficult enough time getting her own words published, instead left to a column on housekeeping tips, published under a fictitious name, repurposing the advice from Aibileen. Much as the rock artists of the 1950s and 60s, she is taking black America and claiming it as her own.
I can’t help but be reminded of Sophie Labelle’s Assigned Male webcomic. In one strip, Weird stuff allies do (that queer and trans people never asked for), she lists 4 problematic things allies to queer people do:
- do objectifying photo projects about our bodies
- act like they’re oppressed because they support us
- tell us how we should advocate for our rights
- tell us their pet is LGBTQ
This is Skreever’s position in the narrative, and it falls dangerously close to ‘white saviour’ trope territory. ‘White woman trying to understand black America’ works amazing in Haynes’ film, but here it’s closer to “objectifying photo project”. The maids are ‘the help’ in the film. But Skreever becomes the help, giving many of these women a better life and becoming an inspiration leading the civil rights movement to get other women to reconsider their treatment of African Americans. She becomes an honorary African American, crowding around the TV as they hear of the death of a black activist.
The figureheads of the Civil Rights Movement are, as they should be, African Americans. I’m sure many white people helped progress this story; on the telephone call to her editor, Skreever’s editor notes that in MLK’s March on Washington, there are both whites and blacks there. The Help takes on a modern approach: reflect on supposed modern integration by covering a story of segregation from the perspectives of both white America and black America. But we should not forget: many areas have majority African American communities. Integration isn’t everywhere.
Yet, the drama of the film is a story that has been told many times before. 1960s women obsessed with gossip and haircuts; a young daughter trying to find a life for herself whilst her eccentric mom (who looks like she’s straight out of Grey Gardens) urges her to find the man of her dreams; cue inevitable arguments between women. The first half hour of the film focuses exclusively on the white perspective, and it was by that point when I was very seriously considering giving up.
This is not an African American story. But viewer is given an impression of an African American story, wrapped up within a white narrative. Dupe the audiences with a white narrative that is supposedly guaranteed seats, then give them the personal stories of African Americans, whilst cutting back to the white narrative every so often. Try and guarantee both black audiences and white audiences what they’re looking for as demographics – because, as Master of None (2015-present) reminds us, there can only be one. We move between scenes where Skeeter is the only white woman in the room, or Aibileen is the only black woman in the room.
The lives of the maids are the most interesting story here, but we aren’t given enough of a glimpse into their lives. An account of their objections to Skeeter publishing their narratives, where she becomes the antagonist rather than the protagonist, or of how they’re treated both by the master of the house and by the police, would make for a more compelling story.
We’re introduced to more ‘sympathetic whites’ as the story progresses. Minny becomes Celia’s closest confidant, rather than just window dressing. She serves her Coca Cola and eats at the table with her despite her objections. Minny helps her with her miscarriage, which leads to praise from Johnny despite her fears of him. Yet the idea of the white narrative erasing the black narrative is also in play here – she wants to keep the housework secret from her husband, and pretend that she did it. Or the gala for African children, yet erasing African Americans in the process, who stand there as servants to white parties of people.
The film does a good job at showing the subtle manifestations of segregation – not only in the outside world, but also inside the home. Toilets are segregated, because of how African Americans are perceived as unclean and diseased with foreign bugs that will harm everyday Americans. When Aibileen uses the white facilities, this becomes a small form of rebellion – carried on by Skeeter adding a request for old loos to the newsletter, and in the flannel made of shit. Despite limited progress since Rosa Parks, the bus may no longer be segregated, but blacks are still asked to leave the bus in the light of a murder of an African American.