When minorities complain about how we’re depicted in films, most times we’re told we don’t understand the “intent”
In no particular order, here are a few over used movie tropes that The Help resurrects:
The “ugly duckling” character is anything but
Putting big glasses and tightly curling her hair does not make Emma Stone’s Skeeter anywhere near the description of Skeeter in the novel:
To say I have frizzy hair is an understatement. It is kinky, more pubic than cranial, and whitish blond, breaking off easily, like hay. My skin is fair and while some call this creamy, it can look downright deathly when I’m serious, which is all the time. Also, there’s a slight bump of cartilage along the top of my nose. But my eyes are cornflower blue, like Mother’s. I’m told that’s my best feature. (Pg 56)
I was not a cute baby. When I was born, my brother, Carlton, looked at me and declared to the hospital room, “It’s not a baby, it’s a skeeter!” and from there the name stuck. I was long and leggy and mosquito-thin . . . the name grew even more accurate with my pointy, beak-like nose when I was a child. . . By sixteen I wasn’t just not pretty. I was painfully tall. The kind of tall that puts a girl in the back row of class pictures with the boys. The kind of tall where your mother spends her nights taking down hems, yanking at sweater sleeves, flattening your hair for dances you hadn’t been asked to, finally pressing the top of your head as if she could shrink you back to the years when she had to remind you to stand up straight. (Pg 57)
While Skeeter on screen could deviate from the novel, not so for the black characters.
The film stuck with Stockett’s contention in the book that the maids had to be dark, and also the “Black people all look alike” trope:
And here’s another one showing the movie seemed to go for one “type” of African American:
This seems to be the year of black women dressed as maids.
However, Tower Heist is a broad comedy. The Help wasn’t supposed to be.
Coifed hair and designer dresses appear to belong only on young, white Mississippians, as there’s no middle class blacks or up and coming young black professionals in The Help. Thus the film, like the book seems to give the impression that African Americans came in only one socio-economic status.
Guess these gals didn’t get the memo:
Handsome “Good Ole Boys”
Speaking of false advertising, just like in the novel most of the white males are handsome, hold down good jobs, in short, they’re soap opera, fan fiction males.
Here’s how the movie was promoted overseas:
Especially when many “Good Ole Boys” looked and acted like this:
And far too many of the “Dreamboats” (how Johnny Foote was marketed overseas) and “Good Ole Boys” of the South reacted to African Americans who were in the wrong place and the wrong time like this:
But then, if I recognize these tropes, and you recognize them, why do we put up with Hollywood and television and books inserting them as if we’re none the wiser?
For example, how about the intentional “dumbing down” of a minority, for laughs or to show that they need to be led?
A few recent examples:
The Blind Side, Avatar, and THE HELP
In The Blind Side, the screenwriter ignores the fact that Michael Oher knew all about football in order to show us cute scenes of SJ, the young son of the Tuohy’s “teaching” the overgrown teddy bear of a black teen how to play the game (the fictional Michael Oher is portrayed as sweet but slow as molasses in intellect at times, and I’ve seen him in a number of interviews. He’s not like that). There’s also a scene where Sandra Bullock gets to drill into Michael’s head in front of the whole team, coach and all that protecting the quarterback is like protecting their family.
Like many other films, this scene (note I said scene, not the whole film) repeats again and again, as Michael states his intent to “protect” Lou Anne Tuohy when they go shopping for clothes in the black part of town, and when he physically restrains the air bag so SJ doesn’t get hurt, and also when he “protects” the Tuohy females when the big, bad, stereotypical drug dealer threatens to sexually assault Lou Anne and her daughter. Michael’s rage knows no bounds once he hears that and he goes ballistic.
While I suppose they’re well meaning “dramatic” scenes, they’re intentional and tiresome stereotypes. Michael Oher becomes a “noble savage” putting his life on the line in order to defend the honor of the Tuohy females. The “noble savage” is now commonly referred to as the “Magic Negro.”
And their purpose is a saintly one. Because any black person willing to go against their own to protect the white character can’t be all bad, right?
In fact, back in the day, these characters were considered “a credit to their race”
It’s important to note that blacks weren’t the only minority group stuck with being a “noble savage.”
Some well known “noble savage” characters are in Gunga Din, and Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans. It’s also important to point out that the sacrifice made by the minority character didn’t always mean they had to die. In The Way of the Gunfighter, hottie James Shigeta cuts off his long braid in a contest of “who loves ya babe?” when he’s up against fast draw Jack Lord for the affection of the Chinese woman they both love.
By cutting off his hair, Shigeta’s character is “shamed” (according to the movie his long hair was a symbol of pride, I’d have to research whether the film got that right) so he gets the girl, as she decides her place is with him because of his huge sacrifice. However, it’s Jack Lord’s character that she falls hard for, so in a sense she too makes a “sacrifice” by chosing race over true love.
But at least James Shigeta got to be a gunfighter.
Most times the “magic negro” will do something to show how deep goodness runs in their character, like when Sidney Poitier reaches back for Tony Curtis in the film The Defiant Ones, causing them both to fall from a moving train. They were escaped convicts, and Sidney gave up his freedom by this simple, but telling act of kindness. He’d “bonded” with a avowed racist. However, Tony’s character is more tolerant after he gets to know Sidney’s character.
In Avatar, while Jake leads the local inhabitants to victory, Sigourney Weaver’s character dies and becomes “one” with their deity, in order for their pleas for help to be heard. Jake makes an impassioned plea to Grace, and Grace explains to the planet’s caretaker why she should become involved with saving the people who worshiped and revered her daily.
In The Help, Aibileen is sweet, but slow. In the book she’s shy, and in the movie Viola Davis keeps this trait, having her smile shyly and keep her eyes downcast when addressing Skeeter. She’s a “nice” black maid, quietly swallowing the insults she hears, breaking into laughter in the kitchen when the “sassy” maid, Minny Jackson does a stand up comedy routine.
This is supposed to show the real Aibileen, just like her time with Mae Mobley, where she teaches the child the heart tugging but ultimately stereotypical “You is kind, you is smart,” mantra.
If only Aibileen believed in it herself.
Because for someone who enjoys reading and writing, and for a woman whose deceased son Treelore gave her a goal she could have attained on her own (blacks were getting published in the 60s. And before that. Many readers don’t know that this period was called “The New Black Renaissance” for African American writers. See this post for more information:
African Americans and cooking go hand in hand:
Octavia Spencer can’t cook in real life, according to her own admission. But Spencer is the actress who plays Minny, and the individual Stockett has stated was the creative inspiration for the character. Minny is supposed to be the best cook in Hind’s county, as she defaults into the standard movie image of an African American domestic. A good cook and one who just loves to eat. This brings stereotypical humor to the book and now to the film.
Minny’s obsessive adoration of food is on full display, as she has the honor of reciting cringe worthy lines about fried chicken. Stockett also has the maid inflict a highly gross retribution on Hilly Holbrook, having Minny spout off the stomach churning ingredients to the horror of Hilly.
Stockett ignores just what Minny would truly face if something like this was ever revealed in the real Jackson, Mississippi. A place where fourteen year old Emmet Till was brutally murdered for reportedly flirting with a white woman. Physical assaults on female Freedom Riders were common, as were fire bombings of the homes of blacks who attempted to encourage others to vote. Yet all Minny gets is hysterical laughter from Miss Walters, and Hilly practicing denial, probably over the trauma of eating someone else’s poop.
What I and others want to know is, how the hell could Minny cook up shit in her OWN kitchen and not want to puke? This whole thing is nasty, nasty, NASTY. The feces would have to be procured, then added, stirred and then baked. Oh Hell Naw. . . now you have to know that is some seriously off the wall shit. How could you even go back into your own kitchen again? Maybe I could see if Minny had done it in Hilly’s kitchen, but in her own? No. Just. No.
For Love of Fried Chicken
Yes, chicken or fried chicken is a Southern tradition. But linking African Americans with it in order to gain cheap laughs has turned off a number of moviegoers who’ve seen The Help.
For those who have no idea why poking fun of African Americans and chicken is considered bad taste, here’s a decent explanation from Slate.com
Trying to explain the “Obama Fried Chicken” incident and others like it.
by Jesse Bering
” . . . mentioning “fried chicken” in the same sentence as “black people” is a major no-no. Yet I’m guessing that the issue of why, exactly, the juxtaposition is so verboten isn’t entirely clear, even to most of us. The most obvious explanation derives from the historical fact that fried chicken dishes were popular in slave homes on Southern plantations. In many cases, chickens were the only livestock animals that slaves were permitted to raise on their own, and—given that Scots founded much of the American South—there’s speculation that African-Americans tweaked and perfected their masters’ imported tradition of frying birds. (That centuries-old habit was one way the Scots distinguished themselves from their staid English neighbors.) So given fried chicken’s powerful symbolic association with oppression, it’s entirely reasonable for African-Americans to be suspicious of any efforts to pair a black president and a classic slave dish for commercial purposes.
There’s more to the story, however. The consumption of “fast foods” tends to elicit a host of negative reactions from those around us, since our eating habits broadcast our social identity. That’s according to the “impression-management theory” of food consumption, as summarized by Cornell University’s Lenny Vartanian and his colleagues in a 2007 issue of the journal Appetite. Although social psychologists haven’t explored people’s perceptions of those who scarf down heavily battered drumsticks, per se, data in this area imply that people who shrug off dietary concerns by eating fried chicken are tarred with the unattractive attributes of the product itself. A bucket of fried chicken may suggest nasty racial stereotypes by virtue of its unwholesome image (one that is entirely unbecoming of our country’s leader) as much as by its particular history as a plantation staple. “Food choice is a means by which one expresses one’s philosophy of life,” argue Vartarian and his co-authors. “What one eats has important consequences for social judgements.”
No one is safe when blacks and chicken become Photoshopped pics in order to carry on the tradition of mocking blacks and that infernal bird. Googling black and fried chicken produces a number of offensive photos. Here are a few from years past:
And here’s one, from of all people, the director/screenwriter of The Help:
The “Please Don’t Go” scene, complete with crying child, a staple in old movies from The Kid to Song of The South to Shane, and now The Help
From the novel The Help:
“Please don’t leave, Aibee,” she (Mae Mobley) say, starting to cry again.
“I got to, baby, I am so sorry.” And that’s when I start to cry. I don’t want to, it’s just gone make it worse for her, but I can’t stop.
“Why? Why don’t you want to see me anymore? Are you going to take care of another little girl?” Her forehead is all wrinkled up, just like when her mama fuss at her. Law, I feel like my heart’s gone bleed to death. . .
“Baby Girl,” I say, “I need you to remember everthing I told you. “Do you remember what I told you?”
I look deep into her rich brown eyes and she look into mine. Law, she got old-soul eyes, like she done lived a thousand years. And I swear I see, down inside, the woman she gone grow up to be. A flash from the future. She is tall and straight. She is proud. She got a better haircut. And she is remembering the words I put in her head. Remembering as a full-grown woman. . .
I walk out the back door, to the terrible sound a Mae Mobley crying again. I start down the driveway, crying too, knowing how much I’m on miss Mae Mobley, praying her mama can show her more love. But at the same time feeling, in a way, that I’m free, like Minny . Freer than Miss Leefolt, who so locked up in her own head she don’t even recognize herself when she read it. And freer than Miss Hilly. That woman gone spend the rest a her life trying to convince people she didn’t eat that pie. I think about Yule May setting in jail. Cause Miss Hilly, she in her own jail, but with a lifelong term. (Aibileen, Pg 444)
The sun is bright but my eyes is wide open. I stand at the bus stop like I been doing for forty-odd years. In thirty minutes, my whole life’s . . done. Maybe I ought to keep writing, not just for the paper, but something else, about all the people I know and the things I seen and done. Maybe I ain’t too old to start over, I think and I laugh and cry at the same time at this. Cause just last night I thought I was finished with everthing new. (Pg 444)
Notice how Aibileen truly falls into Magic Negro territory, by claiming to be able to see, down inside, the woman Mae Mobley will grow up to be. Alternating between with having a decent command of the English language to then lapsing into even more stereotypical dialect, Aibileen claims “A flash from the future. She tall and straight. She is proud. She got a better haircut (cue reader chuckle). She remembering the words I put in her head. Remembering as a full grown woman . . .”
Now take a look at this scene from the Disney film Song of the South, and how it’s oddly similar to the end of Stockett’s novel.
Sally: Uncle Remus, I’m trying my best to bring up Johnny to be obedient and truthful. But you and your stories are making that very difficult. I think maybe it would be better if he didn’t hear any more for a while.
Uncle Remus: Well, Miss Sally, the stories ain’t done no…
Sally: They only confuse him. Now, I know you mean well, Uncle Remus, but Johnny’s too young.
Uncle Remus: Miss Sally…
Sally: I’ll have to ask you not to tell him any more.
Uncle Remus: Yes, ‘m…
Johnny: [on his sick bed from being struck by the bull] Uncle Remus… Come back, Uncle Remus… Come back…
[Uncle Remus, having been banned by Sally from ever seeing Johnny again, decides to pack up and leave for Atlanta] Uncle Remus: Oh, I knows. I knows. I’m just a worn-out ol’ man what don’t do nothin’ but tell stories. But they ain’t never done no harm to nobody. And if they don’t do no good, how come they last so long? This here’s the only home I knows. I was going to whitewash the walls, too, but not now. Time done run out.
And like The Help, notice what reviewers claim about this film:
“I can honestly say that this is a marvelous Disney movie that is NOT racist and does NOT deserve to be hidden away. . . What also upsets me about the shunning of “Song Of The South” in the U.S. is that most Americans will now never get to see anymore the marvelous performance of James Baskett as the loveable storyteller Uncle Remus (and Baskett DID win an Honorary Oscar for his fine work in this film, lest we forget).”
Maligning the African American Male while re-inventing the white southern male
Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s just not something the colored woman do. We’ve got the kids to think about – Minny Jackson (Pg 311)
While this line by Minny was wisely omitted from the film, the movie still takes the attitude that the maids are better off without any male, which was so offensive and erroneous in the novel. Like previous depictions of black males during segregation, and because Stockett appears to have patterned the African American male characters using one male as an example (Clyde AKA Plunk, the abusive husband of real life maid Demetrie McLorn). There are four incarnations in the novel of this man who seems to have made quite an impression on Stockett. They are Connor, the male who impregnates and leaves Constantine to raise her daughter Lulabelle (renamed Rachel in the movie, and recolored from the tragic mulatto to brown in complexion for the film).
There’s also Clyde, Aibileen’s ex-spouse who runs off with the hapless Cocoa. The movie never mentions who fathered Treelore, however the book has a truly ugly backstory, where Minny claims Cocoa swiftly develops a “cootchie spoilt as a rotten oyster” via Aibileen’s power of prayer to call down a venereal disease on the woman who stole her hubby, using “black magic” and God.
The next negative African American male character is Minny’s father. In the book but not the movie, Minny grouses over her ”no-good, drunk daddy” who remains nameless.
And rounding out this foursome is Leroy, a vile brute of a character who beats Minny and terrorizes their children simply because:
“If I didn’t hit you Minny, who knows what you become.” (Pg 413, Leroy’s response when Minny asks why he’s hitting her) *
*I know I’ve read or heard this line before. If any reader recalls, please list it in the comments section.
The film keeps Leroy, the abusive mate of Minny, and shows his raging against her in what some reviewers deem a poorly constructed scene.
There’s also Robert, one of Treelore’s (Aibileen’s deceased son) friends. And there’s the preacher whose sermon convinces Aibileen to help Skeeter with the maids stories. Jameso is an older black worker employed by the Phelans. The film notes Medgar Evers means of death correctly, unlike fledgling journalist Skeeter’s line in the book “. . . or hell, bludgeoned in their front yard like Medgar Evers” Pg 277 and Kathryn Stockett’s own public statements, where in three audio interviews Stockett claims Medgar Evers was indeed “blludgeoned” to death, even claiming he was “bludgeoned on his front yard, in front of his children.”
See more on the Medgar Evers error in The Help, in this post
It was surprising to me to see how many negative male characters Stockett had for black males, especially since the book had been written in 2009.
Only one fictional white male is voiced and shown as negative in her novel, and that’s the naked pervert, who is never given a name, or called the kind of slurs Stockett reserves for several of her black male characters. After reviewing the book, I found Minny only stating that the man who comes out of the woods, jacks off in front of her and Celia, calls the maid a “fat black nigger” and punches her in the head, well all Minny calls him is a “fool.”
The only other books I recall offhand with this many suspect, caricatured black characters would be Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, a book that was the basis for the movie The Birth of a Nation, written during segregation in the early 1900s. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple had a number of volatile and oppressive black males (ironically The Help and also The Color Purple have a Steven Spielberg connection. Spielberg took heat for directing a less gritty version of Walker’s novel, and his Dreamsworks studio produced the film version of Stockett’s novel).
Some moviegoers, like many readers miss how the main black characters aren’t paired with a significant other. Both Aibileen and Constantine have no mate, though they have children, while all the younger white employers (but not Miss Walters, who’s older) like Skeeter, Hilly, Elizabeth, and most of the society gals are on the arm of some “Handsome Good Ole Boy” a pre-meditated ploy to resurrect the fantasy of an Old South, where males “swept women off their feet” while ignoring just how many accosted and sexually assaulted the black domestics working for them (recently uncovered documents show Rosa Parks revealing she too was the victim of an employer who sought to have his way with her. For more information, see this USAToday article:
Rosa Parks essay reveals rape attempt
By Ula Ilnytzky, Associated Press
“Long before Rosa Parks was hailed as the “mother of the civil rights movement,” she wrote a detailed and harrowing account of nearly being raped by a white neighbor who employed her as a housekeeper in 1931.”
More info on what black women and young girls were subjected to at the hands of white males can be found in the non-fiction book At The Dark End of The Street:Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle McGuire
The need to have the South rise again in the antebellum notion of honorable white males, which cannot exist without making black males their violent, baby making absentee parent opposites is clearly defined in Stockett’s novel. Posted below is another screenshot of how The Help was marketed overseas. From “Southern Gentlemen” who are “Dreamboats” to “Handsome Good Ole Boys” the movie, as well as the novel shows the opposite of a “feel good message” of blacks and whites being the same, but that according to some in the publishing and film industry, we truly aren’t.
Click image for larger view:
For more information on this truly low and old school depiction see this post:
The maids of The Help are stereotypes – Aibileen and Minny and even Constantine aren’t “distinct voices” or new portrayals of African American domestics. The tagline for The Help could have been “See Delilah from Imitation of Life and Mammy from Gone With The Wind in the same movie!”
Louise Beavers played the original sweet but shy loyal maid who helps her employer attain her dream in the 1934 melodrama Imitation of Life. Just like in The Help, a black maid was a source of comedy, as laughs at the expense of the African American culture peppered the film. Delilah freely gives over her family’s pancake recipe, so afraid of displeasing Bea (played by Claudette Corbert) that she offers to make a present of it. Aibileen does something similar in The Help, giving Skeeter her son’s idea without requesting he’s at least acknowledged in the book or that some of the proceeds are used as a memorial for him. Aibileen is saintly beyond belief, thus earning the title of “Magic Negro.”
Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer) as an updated version of the Sass master, Mammy from GWTW
When Kathryn Stockett explains what her grandparents would or wouldn’t let her watch on television in this interview with Dan Latini of One Book
“I was taught that racial issues were considered tacky for a young lady to discuss,” she said. ‘I wasn’t even allowed to watch ‘The Jeffersons.’”
I doubt that Stockett’s caretakers had any problem with the author watching Gone With The Wind, a still popular movie whose southern characters may have colored the depictions of her white and black characters and their relationships. Minny and Celia’s interactions mirror Scarlett and Mammy’s testy yet comical scenes, with Mammy/Minny grumbling and Scarlett/Celia oblivious to doing anything the older woman advises, until she finally wises up at the end of the film.
Constantine, played by acting veteran and trailblazer Cicely Tyson is an updated version of the nurturing characters Ethel Waters portrayed on Broadway and film.
For more on what went wrong with the maids in the novel, see this post
For more on reviews of the film version of the maids, see this post:
This post is still in development
To be continued . . .