Is ‘The Help’ Offensive?

Posted on August 26, 2011 at 8:00 am

The Help is a hit.  The book club favorite by first-time novelist Kathryn Stockett is now a box office success, with strong reviews and robust ticket sales.  Like the book, though, it is controversial.  Is it well-intentioned but insensitive for white people to write in the voices of black people?  Does it make whites, rather than blacks, the heroes of the civil rights struggle?

There are some worthwhile discussions of the film online already, well worth reading whether you liked the film or not.   Its greatest contribution will probably be opening up the space for conversations about how to tell these stories in a manner that is both true and respectful of the past and the present.  One element of the film I think has not been given enough credit is the way the most explicit expression of racism in the film, the requirement that private homes build separate bathrooms for “the help,” is a manifestation of the virulently disordered thinking from combining the extreme intimacy of the domestic employee relationship with the extreme racism that requires psychic distance.  The white employers hold onto their bigoted view of the world to feel less vulnerable to the domestics who were so deeply involved with their families and so aware of their secrets.


Teresa Wiltz’s review in “The Root” is an exceptionally thoughtful parsing of the film’s merits and its shortcomings.

In many ways, the movie version of The Help, adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, is better than the 2009 novel. The film does much to humanize unsympathetic characters; a close-up of welling eyes, a frown or a backward glance provide visual cues that Stockett’s ham-fisted prose cannot. On the page, Stockett’s clumsy attempt at black dialect grates; on the screen, in the mouths of talented actors, it feels natural, unforced. Then again, the supremely gifted Viola Davis (Aibileen) and Octavia Spencer (Minny) can make any screenplay sing.

Wiltz says the film “skillfully evokes the curious and complicated intimacy between African-American domestics and their “families” but it omits any role for black men.  Her criticism of the use of humor is telling: “Often, The Help‘s solution to handling difficult subject matter is to leaven it with humor, the better to make it palatable to a mainstream audience. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying, but sometimes laughter trivializes the fact that, yes, you should be crying.”

I liked the way The Root also included a discussion by five young black professional women who attended the film.  One said, “in a theater full of mostly older black women, who seemed to love the film, I was forced to not be so dismissive. Maybe we need to consider that that story line really resonates with a certain generation.”  Another found that she identified most with the young white protagonist in the film, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone). “Her story line as a young, educated, single woman trying to navigate society’s expectations resonated the most…That’s great news about how far we’ve come, but it also made me think seriously about what we’re doing (if anything) to honor their legacy. I’d hate to think some of our grandmothers survived that just for us to end up like little brown versions of the white women they used to work for. 

In Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris said that it was Viola Davis’ performance that made the film work.  I agree — and think it was very wise of Tate to make hers the narrator’s voice of the film.  Her character, and her performance are in every way the heart of the story.

Using her controlled physicality, her low voice, and her radar for realism, she quiets the movie down — which it desperately needs — and turns herself into the embodiment of the pain, compromise, and strength The Help otherwise struggles to get right. Davis’ integrity melds so seamlessly with Aibileen’s that her work is wrenching on an almost unconscious level….

The New Republic tried to imagine a version of the movie that would please those who call it racist.

Harris means unconscious on the part of the audience, not on the part of Davis, whose thoughtful and layered approach to the role lends dignity to the film.

New York Press movie critic Armond White found it cozy and convenient by comparison to television’s “I’ll Fly Away” and Broadway’s “Caroline, or Change.”

Empathic storytelling like this has considerable charm, but newcomer Tate Taylor’s direction and adaptation of the book by Kathryn Stockett indulges prefeminist nostalgia more than it faces the complex realities of American racism. Finding erroneous humor in the way black women outsmarted their white mistresses through wily social courage and culinary artistry is deceptively attractive. To imply that all this has passed and can now be accepted by our advanced, socially tolerant era depends upon a certain falsification of how the black-white, mammy-mistress symbiosis operated. Taylor’s interest in updating historical embarrassments leads to a shallow view of a tradition that began in slavery but continues on in the casually sustained interplay of pain and affection, dependence and resentment.

The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris appeared on the Slate Culture Gabfest to discuss his review of “The Help.”

It’s possible both to like this movie – to let it crack you up, then make you cry – and to wonder why we need a broad, if sincere dramatic comedy about black maids in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 and ’63 and the high-strung white housewives they work for. The movie is too pious for farce and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time….“The Help’’ joins everything from “To Kill a Mockingbird’’ to “The Blind Side’’ as another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism.

And Thelma Adams writes:

on’t be fooled because it’s set among the knick knacks and bridge tables of Jackson, Mississippi – it carries a potent message for those with an open mind

If, like me, you believe the personal is political – a 60’s mantra — then the story of racism can be assembled from small intimate moments, and told from behind closed bathroom doors, in a single community – and that story can have a revolutionary impact. And that is the story of The Help….

You can critique the movie’s form – as Manohla Dargis described it “this big, ole slab of honey-glazed hokeum,” or George’s “rosy glow” headline – but the delivery system does not negate the complexity of the society it reveals. It’s not a simplistic thing. It’s not “oh evil white Southerners” or “wonderful black women that vacuum.” The central question is: what happens in a society where black women raise white children with love, and those white children grow up to terrorize black women?

That’s a unique and provocative question without an easy, rosy, candy-coated answer.

The same could be said about the merits of the movie.  I agree with at least some of all of the points made above.  And I especially agree with what one of the movie’s stars, Octavia Spencer, said when I visited the set last year: ”What I love about this book is that we are having the conversations so that we can stop having the conversations.”  That seems to me to be a good place to begin.





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12 Replies to “Is ‘The Help’ Offensive?”

  1. Nell, your blog wisely enacts your point: that one benefit of The Help, book and movie, is to spark dialog. And for people who had already formed their opinion of the movie before the final scene, they might (only might) have missed the point that the narrative is as much in Abilene’s voice as it is in Skeeter’s. And if critics believe that viewers see The Help and believe that was then, this is now, they are underestimating the intelligence of at least a large portion of the movie-going public.

    1. Thank you very much, Thelma! I was very glad to be able to quote you because I think you made a key point. The personal IS political. The answer to the concerns raised about this movie is not to stop telling these stories; it is to tell more of them, so that everyone’s memories and history are included. Writer/director Tate made the right decision in having just one voice as the narrator here — Aibilene’s. While the ending with her becoming a writer may be retroactive wishful thinking given the historical reality, it is satisfying within the context of the story, as is the whole idea of the maids’ getting a chance to tell their side of things in early 1960’s Jackson.

      For me, the most telling detail was the Vanity Fair profile of Stone that called Skeeter the movie’s leading role. Davis and Spencer played the leads, as I saw it. Which shows that we have come a long way in some respects (in both senses of the word), but not others.

  2. I thought the book and the movie were great and very typical of the South. I was reared and reared my kids in the same way. My people were never mistreated and were like members of my family. I really enjoyed the book and the movie. We need more like them. My grandchildren love to hear about when I was a kid and the things we did before tv. computers etc. We had fun.

    1. Thanks, Ms. Fleming (or, since you’re from the South, I should say “Miss Virginia!”). A great comment. I’m so glad you are sharing stories with your family. Perhaps someday they will write a book!

  3. been raise in the 60’s and raise in the south in Tennesse, I knew all to well what my mother and grandmother went through as been a maid.and raising there employer children, I aenjoy the Help it really hit home with me, and as far as Black men not been mention in the movie, Hell Black were not even mention then, I remember my Dad telling me never look any white people in the eye, and never never never look at no White woman, My answer to my dad was They would have to kill me before I do any of those thing, and he said they will.

  4. There is so much discussion about this book and picture. Once again, the white is the hero; she gets a newspaper job, but relies on a black maid to get the information for her column. Then she decided to write a book, getting all the information from the black maids. Her book becomes successful enough for her to leave Mississippi. None of the black women lives change. One does get the job at the newspaper, but can never show her face; she has to mail the column.

    Are there any black men in the movie. Oh,yes, the one that beats his wife. In the book,there was a young black male that was beaten by some white men leaving him cripple for life.

    The black maids were discouraged from using the same bathroom as whites. Did they eat in the kitchen or outside? Didn’t the black maids nurse the white children? Are there any black men of merit in the picture? The white children were raised and nursed by the black maids while the black children raised themselves This is the same old tired theme; yet, it is being acclaimed as entertaining and should be seen.

    What is inspiring about another old outdated racist movie. A few of the maids had more education than the family they slaved for.

    A well established black star would not have taken the part. Only, some starving black women with limited or no screen time. I’m sure the pay was very small, but probably better than what they have.

    My mother is 95 years old. If she was walking on the sidewalk and a white person was coming toward her or behind her, she would have to step off the sidewalk. That was doing the day, there were black fountains and bathroom only.

    In Mississippi the KKK were present, blacks could not eat in the same dinners, had to sit in the back of buses. schools were not integrated nor theaters, You could only be maids regardless of education, were raped by white men whenever and black men were denied any type of job paying enough to support his family, black farm owner were killed and property taken or property was taken by some scam. Black people had no protection in their homes, they were subjected to all type of inhuman treatments. I could enumerate many more inhuman treatments of blacks, which were considered fine. How long did it take Mississippi to become civilized or has it ever. What a shameful past displayed proudly on screen.

    As a black woman, I would like to know what benefit is this picture to me. I would not belittle myself to walk in this movie. I have heard or seen enough in my lifetime to never see a movie that show blacks in a servant position.

    Have times really changed? Today most blacks are on the poverty level. The few rich blacks are either in sports or entertainment, and a few have their own business.

    If this is a good movie, something is definitely wrong with our society.

  5. I mailed a comment which was not posted because it was factual information that you deemed negative. I believe this movie to be racist and a shameful display of the inequality of blacks that still exist today.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment, Ms. McBride, much appreciated. As I hope you can see, your comment was posted and I never thought of removing it. I hope you will take a moment in the future before jumping to the conclusion that someone would do such a thing. I wrote the post because I thought the movie prompted some fascinating responses and as I said I found much to agree with in all of them, including yours. There is no way that any story can encompass all of the truth of a historic period as complex and painful as this one; all we can hope for is that all of the various stories create a mosaic that creates a larger picture. If this movie prompts more truth-telling by people like you, that is a good thing.

      But you are wrong on a couple of points, perhaps because you chose to write about a movie you have not seen. There is no star more well-established than Viola Davis, who has been nominated for an Oscar and awarded a Tony and co-starred with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. I spoke with her about why she took the role and she said she did it to honor her mother, who was a domestic. You can disagree with her about that, but you cannot say she did not have other options. And the shameful behavior you speak of was in no way portrayed proudly in the book or the film; it was portrayed with deep shame and regret and I would argue that just as with other tragic historical events, it is very important to tell those stories to validate the experiences of those who suffered and keep alert those who might forget how easily we fall into bigotry. The book that is the subject of the film is not by the white woman; it is the stories told by the maids. While they, like the white woman, are anonymous to protect themselves and their families, she considers them the authors and gives them the money she received. The movie makes it clear that at that time period it would not have been possible for them to tell the truth publicly about their experience but that they found it satisfying to have their experiences, good and bad, taken seriously. Perhaps that is wishful thinking from an author who grew up in the decade after, with the legacy of all of the racism your mother experienced. But if those women’s stories could not be heard then, it is a good thing to invite them now. Your comment is a part of all of that.

      I am not telling you to see this movie. If you don’t want to see it, I respect that and if you did I would caution you that you might find it insensitive or disturbing. But perhaps you could reconsider attacking a film you have not actually viewed. Judgment based on assumptions rather than facts is a definition of prejudice.

  6. I just saw The Help today and found it to be very moving. I can’t even imagine what black people had to endure in their lives and it is hard for me to understand how anyone could treat another human being in such a way. I know nothing can be done to repair what happened in the past but sometimes talking about it might help prevent this type of bigotry to happen again.

    We are all created by God and I am sure he has looked down on his children with disappointment many times. Because we are only human, he gives second chances and hope we are smart enough to take them and use them wisely.

    Hopefully movies like this will make us realize how wrong it was to treat anyone in such a immoral way and future generations will learn from the mistakes of their ancestors.

    The actresses in this movie were wonderful.

    1. A lovely comment, Ms. Lamb, much appreciated. I believe your reaction is just what the film-makers were hoping for.

  7. The reactions to this film have been as predictable as day following night. Broadly speaking white people like it (Oh its the best movie, and funny, I recommend it wholeheartedly) and black people curse under their breath “not another DAMN mammy film again”.

    Lets be clear, simply liking a film does not make you a racist. BUT, fawning over it and saying its the best movie you have seen, funny, witty etc and FAILING to notice the repetition of the same old tired stereotypes and themes DOES suggest that you are perhaps too “comfortable” (and thus not challenging enough) of those images and the status quo.

    That unfortunately DOES make you complicit in maintaining the veneer of living in a “post racial” world despite the glaring inequalities (if you care to look) that still exist.

    Its been done … nothing? new here. A movie purportedly about racism afflicting an oppressed community, but actually about the experience of the affluent white person defending that community. “To Kill a Mocking bird”, “Cry Freedom.” “Mississippi Burning.”, “The blind Side” the list goes on …

    To see why white people tend to like these films see these links:

    You will find a few eye openers there that may help take off the blinkers most of us on, when we choose to fail to see what is happening around us.

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