The Help’s Blueprint for Black Characters

Posted on August 20, 2011

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It was years in the making, centuries of a belief that one culture was subservient and unequal to another.

The Blueprint for The Help was years in the making

As a result of this mindset, there were other novels before Kathryn Stockett’s best seller that virtually said the same thing. That some black men were “no-accounts” and absentee fathers and “no good” even though they suffered and eventually had small triumps under an oppressive regime known as segregation. Demeaned in real life, they were similarly portrayed on screen as comedic foils for beloved white stars.

 

Stepin Fetchit's greatest role. The cowering, confused black man

 
 
 
 
 

Aibileen's folksy sayings and demeanor resemble Uncle Remus from Disney's Song of The Song

 
 
 

Alan Hoskins as Farina

 
 
 
No matter what their age, African American men were still referred to as “boy.” The other term denoting not only familiarity, but bemused tolerance of the role they played in society was “Uncle.” It was to signify they were harmless, and also that they were in no means a threat sexually to white women.  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Hires ad, "Yassuh . . ."

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Mantan Moreland and his famous comedic expression

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The images for black women came in two acceptable varieties.
 
The docile, loyal asexual one.  And the grumpy but funny “sassy” model.
 
 
In 1934 Louise Beavers starred as the maid Delilah in the film version of Fannie Hurst’s bestselling novel on race and sisterhood titled Imitation of Life.  
 

Louise Beavers, the early screen prototype for Stockett's Aibileen Clark

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It’s unfortunate there was no best supporting actress category during that time, for with the outpouring of good feelings and accolades that came Beaver’s way, she could have possibly become the first African American to win an Academy Award.

 
 

Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life, touted as "the greatest screen role ever played by a colored actress"

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
If Beavers’ innate sweetness shone brightly in her performance of the devoted, long suffering Delilah, then Hattie McDaniel’s years of portraying domestics and being surly about it earned her a well deserved Oscar nomination.
 

Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind, the film that set the standard on how black maids should look onscreen

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Her win as Mammy in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind practically sealed the fate of the actresses who came after her.
 

Hattie McDaniel with Olivia De Havilland and Vivian Lee

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Hattie McDaniel's haunting Oscar pic. Hard not to wonder what she was thinking or going through

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
While the quiet, stand by your mistress domestic was nice, it was the browbeater with the funny quips that audiences responded more favorably to after that.
 
Mammy set the stage for roles like Marla Gibb’s backtalking Flo in The Jefferson’s, Nell Carter’s loud and lovable Nell in Gimme a Break, and also in some small part Robert Guillaume’s Benson, a male version of Mammy, though a smooth, classy one. Mammy Two Shoes from the Tom n Jerry cartoon became the animated counterpart for children.
 
 
 

The Mammy Two shoes caricature from Tom and Jerry cartoon

 
 
 
 
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Today the newest incarnations of these two characters are Aibileen and Minny.
 
Just as Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are receiving kudos for their roles in the film, they continue a trend started years prior. The difference this time is that Mammy and Delilah aren’t in separate films. They’re together in one, called
The Help.
 
If there’s any consolation, the characters in the film aren’t nearly as bad as the ones in the novel.
 
When Kathryn Stockett decided to voice her maids, she gave Aibileen a serious case of self loathing about her own skin color.
 
Aibileen makes a point to warn one of her seventeen kids not to “. . . drink coffee or he gone turn colored.”
 
She’s tickled when he sees her years later and reveals he still ain’t drunk a cup a coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice seeing the kids grown up fine. (Pg 91)
 
Many readers don’t know this was real advice originated not by African Americans, but bigots during segregation. Stockett doesn’t stop there. She also adds in the insidious notion that blacks carry venereal diseases, by having Aibileen and Minny chuckle over Cocoa, the woman who’s run off with Aibileen’s scoundrel of a husband Clyde. Again, this is another insult that was spread during segregation and was used to block integration.
 
 

Women of Mississippi spread demeaning myths, scan from Clarion-Ledger 1963

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Minny reveals to Aibileen “week after Clyde left you, I heard Cocoa wake up with her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works.”
 
To which Aibileen, replies “You saying people think I got the black magic?”
 
And Minny responds with “I knew it make you worry if I told you. They just think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.” (Pg 24)
 
In this one small scene, Stockett crams in enough offensive material to have her book banned in some libraries.
 
Aibileen and Minny are supposed to be devout Christians (that’s debatible).
 
Aibileen is too naive to put two and two together, that Clyde’s affair didn’t just happen within the week that he left her. And since Cocoa wakes up with a “spoilt cootchie” or a venereal disease as Minny states “week after Clyde left you” then this is a rather nasty threesome, with Aibileen, Clyde and Cocoa perhaps each contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
 
Cocoa apparently doesn’t get it medically treated or resolved for three months, thereby making this whole thing even more icky.
And what does Aibileen, who’s supposed to be “intelligent” have to say about it?
 
 “You saying people think I got the black magic?”
 
Now how in the hell does black magic even have a spot in all this?
 
The connotation isn’t pretty. In fact it’s downright offensive, because African Americans and black magic have been linked together since we landed on American shores. The skewed reasoning was no matter if we professed to be Christians, we reverted back to the practice of “black magic.”
 
Since Aibileen never knew about the Cocoa Cootchie Clyde deal way back when, then Stockett’s decision to turn Aibileen into an asexual hermit still makes no sense. But when crafting a Mammy, sexual abstinence is a requirement.
 
 
There’s the twenty year period where Aibileen goes into sexual hibernation, from age 33 to 53. The only explanation given is that Aibileen fears falling for the wrong kind of man. But with everything functioning properly there’s no reason she wouldn’t seek out companionship. It’s just another way not to given the character more of a backstory, but also follow a trend in literature (From Imitation of Life, to Gone With The Wind, to Pinky) that a chaste black caretaker is more loyal than one bound in marriage, trying to balance her time between her adolescent white charge and a husband.
 
And its another reason Skeeter reads more like the lead character book, with Aibleen and Minny as her supporting players even though the novel’s title is The Help
 
Stockett repeats the chaste domestic routine twice. Because Constantine is also asexual after having one child. Another repeated refrain is how lousy the black males are. Connor dumps Constantine after she has the light enough to pass for white Lulabelle. The movie doesn’t repeat this error. Lulabelle is renamed Rachel (thank god) and is no longer as Aibileen describes, “Law, she come out pale as snow. Grew hair the color a hay.” (Pg 357)
 
This is important because Stockett wound up separating her characters into threes in the novel.
 
Minny, Aibileen and Constantine are all heavy set, dark in complexion and saddled with thick dialects.
 
Yule May (she of the “good hair, smooth, no naps”) speaks like the white characters with no regional accent. Gretchen wears pink lipstick (meaning she’s light in complexion) and also speaks plainly. Rounding out the three is Lulabelle, the lightest of them all. Gretchen and Yule May also share body types, as they’re described as trim  (guess its because they’re cousins. Stockett also adds in Pascagoula as Yule May’s cousin, though she’s described as “black as night and tiny as a child”).
 
Taking a look at how the author crafts the white women characters, only Miss Walters is all by her lonesome in the book, and in the movie.
But Miss Walters is supposed to be much older with medical ailments.
 
Minny isn’t asexual. In fact she’s very much sexually active. For as the character explains:
 
But I’ve got more important things to worry about than if Celia’s won the damn popularity contest. What with Medgar Evers shot on his own doorstep and Felicia clammering for her driver’s license, now that she’s turned fifteen – she’s a good girl but I got pregnant with Leroy Junior when I wasn’t much older than her and a Buick had something to do with it. And on top of all that, now I’ve got Miss Skeeter and her stories to worry about (Pg 215, Minny)
 
 
Here’s the other myth associated with not only African Americans, but also negatively slapped on several other minority groups. That we’re sexually promiscious and irresponsible, as in having far too many children while not able to take care of them.
 
Minny has five kids and a sixth on the way in the novel. Aibileen remarks about her two sisters having eighteen kids between the two of them (Pg 23).
 
No white character has a comparable large brood. If Stockett was trying to show how blacks and whites were “different” then she used a number of insulting myths born out of segregation to do so.
 
In addition to Minny having a large group of children, Stockett throws in references that Minny’s household is out of control, and one child in particular is driving her crazy. And that’s Minny’s youngest daughter Kindra.
 
As usual, Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking. I see the first hint a Minny’s belly under her dress and I’m grateful she finally showing. Leroy, he don’t hit Minny when she pregnant. And Minny know this so I spec they’s gone be a lot more babies after this one. (Pg 396)
 
There’s also the problem of Stockett demeaning most of the African American males in the novel (Connor, Clyde, Minny’s father and Leroy). That’s why three of these characters were left out of the movie. They should have been left out of the book. Instead Kathryn Stockett painted the males who practiced segregation as loving, hard working while the black men like Clyde, Connor, Minny’s father and Leroy are less than men.
 
The sole inspiration for all these males seems to be Clyde/Plunk, the frequently drunk and violently abusive man who was wed to Demetrie McLorn. Only the vile Leroy is a carryover in the movie. Treelore, Aibleen’s son is wisely kept for the film, but his death is deemed a murder instead of the accident the book describes it as.  
 
 
 
It’s too late to do anything about it now, because not enough people came forward at the beginning, when the book The Help was released in 2009.
 
 
Emboldened by reader responses, some of whom included things like “OMG, I didn’t know black people had it so freakin’ bad back then!” and “OMG, they really spoke like that because it was illegal for them to go to school, duh!”
 
I kid you not. Amazon.com still has up the five star reviews. Try telling someone who’s in love with the idea that The Help made them feel something akin to caring for fictional characters, while still calling living, breathing African Americans “they”, therefore their self professed liberalism is spot on.
 
Also, “OMG!” and “Duh” are poor attempts on my part at duplicating shock in modern dialect, most often associated with whites.
 
But this may be the only way some people realize that associating a sole dialect to one race is not only silly, but offensive.
 
Nevermind that in defending The Help, some employ stereotypical beliefs about the very culture they now claim to have empathy for (seems The Help “helped” others rediscover black people, as if we’ve been this separate country that now must be again colonized)
 
 
Oh joy.
 
At least let’s find common ground on a few things.
 
Segregation was a shameful period in American history. For this great country practiced the type moral offense we usually accuse other nations of doing. I’m surprised some other country didn’t muster troops and attack us, thus “freeing” African Americans. The eyes of the world were on America as the south tried to take steps to crush the rights protests. Condemnation came from around the globe, once news footage on strategies used on the protestors were broadcast.
 
So don’t think the pressure was simply internal.
 
 

Children arrested while protesting

         

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Photo by famous civil rights photographer, the late Charles Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hosed to stop a peaceful demonstration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If African Americans wanted freedom and equality, they’d have to fight for it.

Which meant some would die and never see the promised land. And there were whites willing to take up the cause and also die for it. But overwhelmingly, it was African American blood, sweat and tears that fueled one of the greatest struggles for freedom the world had even known. Martin Luther King Jr. took many of his cues from Ghandi’s successful non-violent protests in India. King also had A. Philip Randolph as a mentor and guide. Randolph was instrumental in orchestrating the Pullman porter strike.

Freedom wasn’t won in a day, or even or week. Or even a few years. It took decades. In fact, over a century.

 

The Faculty of Harbison College, Abbeville, South Carolina 1894

Prior to that, blacks were in bondage known as slavery. Reconstruction was smack in the middle, but any gains were wiped out as African Americans were still considered unequal to whites. And there was the fear of race mixing, or “tainting” the white race, an excuse which assisted groups like the KKK to proclaim themselves the protectors of their kind, especially white women.

 
 
 
 
 

Proudly opposing civil rights - A "sisterhood" founded in around segregation

If saying The Help is simply revisionist history is too strong a statement, then how about this fluffly re-telling meets with disapproval in some circles.

And spare me the whole “Stockett was brave to write this novel.”

Especially since there are far more worthier examples of those who exemplify bravery.

More important, when taking a closer look at how the The Help came about, bravery was the farthest thing from the minds of those involved. What all parties involved in making The Help did was simply to plan their work and work their plan.

And when the heat was on they adjusted accordingly, like changing the screenplay once they got wind of the issues some had with the novel’s depiction of African Americans.

The touch Skeeter dared not do in the book, but was created for the movie. Skeeter never reached out to "touch" any black person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viola Davis saying the line that was never uttered in the book "You are a Godless woman"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard thinks Minny is using her bathroom and spreading disease in another new scene created for the movie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what Viola Davis stated in an interview with Movieline (words in Italics are my doing):

“There’s so much affecting material in The Help, but you’ve said that you had hesitations about taking the role at first. What was it that finally drew you in?


I just thought that the characters were so fleshed out. I did not see stereotypes. I saw maids, but I didn’t see stereotypes. Stereotypes to me are people where the humanity is not explored, that they become just cardboard cutouts. I didn’t see that. It was a chance for me to really go on a journey with a character… “

Link: http://www.movieline.com/2011/08/viola-davis-on-the-lingering-ghosts-of-americas-past-and-how-she-questioned—and-then-embraced—th.php

 

 

Let me try to guess what  her reservations with the character of Aibileen from the novel were:

The self loathing over her own skin color and the impression that she fawns over white characters because she’s an Uncle Tom at heart.

Some examples  include Aibileen and the roach color swatch test, Aibileen telling Skeeter that Connor was black as me, Aibileen purring over Yule May’s “good hair, no naps” as well as noting how cute Hilly’s kids are but never giving the reader the sense that she sees any children in her own community through the same eyes. There’s also the joke Stockett has Aibileen telling of “don’t drink coffee or you’ll turn colored” which wasn’t funny but highly offensive.

None of this made it into the film. In the novel, Aibileen ignored the abuse of her best friend’s children who were stuck between a violent father (Leroy) and a volatile, peevish mom (Minny). While Aibileen coddles and instills love as well as esteem in Mae Mobley, not once does she notice how Minny hollers at her children and puts responsibilities upon her youngest (Kindra) that would have Aibileen ready to go into protect mode had it been Mae Mobley.

But that doesn’t happen even though Kindra is only five when the novel begins and Mae Mobley is two.  

There’s no scene with this character interacting tenderly with any black child in the novel. The closest is when Aibileen goes over to Minny’s house and Benny throws his arms around her, initiating a hug so that he can show off his missing tooth.

Benny come in and squeeze me round the middle. He grin and show me the tooth he got missing, then run off (Pg 396)

For more information on how Kathryn Stockett makes a difference in the children of the novel, this post explores the children of the novel:

 

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/comparing-mae-mobley-to-kindra/

 

 

The Help Movie Poster

It started with a group of childhood friends, each with a specific piece that they could bring to the table. And under any other circumstances the whole story would be the stuff of a warm non-fiction sequel making them all look like really swell individuals.

Stockett had the premise, or the one who had the “Best idea”

Most, if not all involved had domestics while growing up (all except Octavia Spencer)

From what I can tell (reviewing old interviews) the core group started off with Stockett, Tate Taylor and another guy, his producing partner.

Spencer was added a bit later but at an opportune time, because really, as per Stockett’s own admission, Spencer went on tour with her to voice the “black” parts.

This also lent an air of credibility to Stockett as being knowledgeable about African Americans, even having one as a close buddy. In addition, there was the endearing tale about her relationship with Demetrie McLorn, the devoted maid of her grandparents.

Cracks began to show when people couldn’t keep their stories straight. And one of them was the author herself.

To be continued in The Help’s Blueprint for Black Characters Part II  . . .

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