Are black moviegoers being treated to, or like “The Help?”

Posted on June 26, 2011


As moviegoers we stand around silently, attentively waiting until Hollywood sees fit to gift us with a movie or two featuring an African American or gasp! shock and awe! Another minority in the cast.

Maid at the door, silent and almost invisible

Just as maids and butlers lingered within earshot, unobtrusively waiting until called by the head of the household.

Every now and then we get thrown a good film that has a black male or female as the lead. We neither question nor raise much of a fuss, even as many other films are released without a minority featured prominently in the cast , because what we’re given is all we’ve got.

How did it come to this?

That we’re way past desperate to see ourselves on the screen, while Will Smith, Oprah, Tyler Perry, Vin Diesel and the many unsung independent minority filmmakers have all they can handle in a cut-throat business which still sees a leading man and leading lady in only one color.

We’ve been taken for granted, ignored, put on hold and patronized all because there’s still the belief we’ll come whenever called.

But as Tyler Perry’s movies proved, African Americans are a potent force for making a film a hit, and not just whenever those in Hollywood feel like they want to throw a bone every now and then. A bone of contention like The Help, a movie based on a book with distorted beliefs and imagery about blacks in the 1960s. And based on the trailer I saw that seemed tailored to black viewers on BET, scenes of maids cracking jokes in the kitchen harken back to once again having black actors make audiences laugh when there’s nothing remotely funny about segregation.

This isn’t a tribute to the men and women who toiled under an oppressive system. This is Beulah meets The Blind Side, as producers bite their fingernails hoping moviegoers don’t consult the book to see just how much had to be altered for the screen.

So join Hollywood as we slide back into the past, a white washed past where “affection” between blacks and whites rule the day. Where maids who didn’t give the actual civil rights movement fighting for a “voice” in Stockett’s novel the time or inclination to get involved, but who tell Skeeter “I’m on help you” with her book (not a typo, as Kathryn Stockett literally vomited phonetics for the black characters in the novel, all except the closer to white characters like Gretchen, Lulabelle and Yule May CROOKLE, yes, Crookle as in look how funny this inside joke is about her last name. I don’t think readers, especially any black readers will spot it. Oh, but we did. Right around the time she went to jail for stealing and wrote a confession letter to Skeeter, boldly signing her last name)

Moviegoers, like readers of the novel will be treated to black characters with no backstory, but you’ll learn to root for Skeeter as her mother battles Cancer, and she battles her love for the wimpy Stuart and against the Cruella De Ville of the south, Hilly Holbrook.

Cut to the scenes of Aibileen sitting alone at her kitchen table writing every now and then, but remember it’s Skeeter who’s in danger as she valiantly trudges over to the black side of town, in the pitch black of night!

Unfortunately, moviegoers may not be treated to Skeeter’s narration on how black African Americans really are, as in “black as asphalt” or “ten times blacker”. Perhaps the movie will throw in Skeeter’s childhood recollection of two little girls being “so black I couldn’t tell them apart” so she just calls them both Mary.

It will be a bit of a shock at first, especially since for the last few years of movies, African Americans have been lulled into thinking that a movie title referring to their character (s) must mean the movie is about us. Sorry y’all. When Hollywood goes back, they go all the way back.

The Help isn’t really about the domestics. It’s about Skeeter and HER issues. See, it’s so hard to be a liberal in the south when you weren’t really one in the book, but the movie needs to convince moviegoers that she is, so Skeeter gets a makeover, and not just with her frizzy hair.

While Skeeter was detached in the book, she’s not in the movie. She now has a bit of steel like Sandra Bullock and a winning, toothy smile like Julia Roberts. The movie made the right choice picking Emma Stone to play Skeeter, as well as Viola Davis as Aibileen.

So while the PR on the movie will amp up their black/white “sisterhood” and “giving black maids a voice” I wondered where all this was when I read the novel. Just watching the trailer for The Help made me long for the good old days of the 70s. Full of cheesy effects, lame fight scenes, at least African Americans had attitude.

When I was growing up, blaxploitation or black exploitation movies with names like The Mack, Coffey, Cleopatra Jones, Blacula, Across a 110th Street, Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Assss  Song among others filled theaters, though it costs much more to produce a film these days.

It was “us” against “the man”

And out of a cornicopia of  movies came favorites like:

Sounder. Lady Sings The Blues. The Learning Tree. Cotton comes to Harlem. Shaft. Superfly. Sparkle. Cornbread, Earl and Me. Cooley High. Uptown Saturday Night (I know I’m missing quite a few movies just doing this off the top of my head 🙂


Lady Sings The Blues Original Album Cover







But then it seemed as soon as the proliferation of movies began, it ended. A raging river became just a trickle. Then a single drip of water for the thirsty, just in time.

I recall seeing a smoldering Denzel Washington co-starring with Howard Rollins Jr. in A Soldier’s Story.  Adolph Ceasar played the brutal, racist against his own kind Sergeant Waters. And he was well deserving of an Oscar nomination.

Howard Rollins Jr was the lead in A Soldier's Story

 A few years earlier Rollins had won the coveted role of Colehouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime

Howard Rollins Jr as Coalhouse Walker

Howard E. Rollins Jr and Debbie Allen in Ragtime








Maybe we took it all for granted. For a time Spike Lee was holding it down, with his films resonating between anger and black consciousness, until he reached the mountain top not once, but three times with Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X. John Singleton was a new, fierce voice with his ode to inner city Los Angeles called Boyz in The Hood.



Again I’m going by what I can quickly recall:

The Color Purple, Coming to America, Glory, The Five Heartbeats, Devil in a Blue Dress, What’s Love got to do with it, Fresh, Waiting to Exhale, Eve’s Bayou, Amistad, Training Day, Monster’s Ball, Blade, Love and Basketball, Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland, Drumline, Ray, Hustle and Flow, The Pursuit of Happyness, American Gangster, Stomp The Yard, Talk to Me, Dreamgirls, Precious, Notorious, For Colored Girls . . .

Antwone Fisher was particularly memorable for me, with a top notch cast, compelling story and a rising star in Derek Luke.

Antwone Fisher














But there’s been a draught lately of dramas that speak of us and to us. The bright spots have come too few and much too far between. Causing a ripple in the water, and only making one hunger for much, much more.


The next offering from Hollywood is The Help. 


The Help Movie Poster












Sure, now we can look back and laugh at many of the movies from the 70s. But a few things they have that you may not see in The Help


Romance between a black man and black woman 

Like the novel, the movie puts Skeeter’s budding love affair front and center.  In the novel, the mates of the primary black maids were either called “no-account” (Aibileen’s ex and Minny’s father) or labeled an absentee father (Aibileen’s husband Clyde and Connor, Constantine’s lover). It appears that Aibileen is still alone in the film, but my hope is they explain this by saying she’s a widow. In the novel Aibileen’s husband Clyde is a dog, running off with another woman, with an implication that he gave his new love a venereal disease (Spoilt Cootchie scene, Pg 23-24) and because of one man, Aibileen swears off all men. From age 33 to 53 when the novel begins, Aibileen is content to dote on the white children of her employers while ignoring her best friend Minny’s children, who witness the almost daily physical abuse of their mother by their violent father Leroy. But even though Minny is a battered woman she’s enlisted to be the comic relief of the book, acting contrary to all known medical data on victims of domestic violence.


Diversity in the color of the maids

In the novel, Kathryn Stockett claimed all the maids needed to be “blacker the better” in order to get hired, and no one seemed the wiser, even though African Americans come in so many different tones that bigots didn’t care. If you were a “Negro” back then and light enough to pass for white you could still be relegated to a domestic.

Lillian Rodgers Parks, seamstress for the white house. A light complexioned, black domestic


Lillian Rodgers Parks worked as a maid and seamtress at the white house from 1929 - 1960




From the NYTimes:

“The title of Mrs. Parks’s 1961 memoirs, written with Frances Spatz Leighton, was somewhat misleading. For although Mrs. Parks worked as an observant White House seamstress and maid only from the beginning of the Hoover Administration in 1929 to the end of the Eisenhower years in 1961, she had been a familiar figure at the White House since she was a little girl.

That is because her mother, Maggie Rogers, who joined the White House staff on the fourth day of the Taft Administration, would often take her daughter to work with her. And when she did not, she would come home to regale her family with stories of what she had seen or heard at the White House that day.”


Leslie Uggams as Lillian Rodgers Parks in Backstairs at the White House








I’ll have a post up shortly on Lillian’s book and the mini-series of the same name. Leslie Uggams played Lillian in the TV mini-series.



A City in the grip of a 24 year old control freak

In the novel and it appears this may also be true of the movie, Hilly is she who rules, in an unrealistic turn of events even for this revisionist history tale. In this version, Jackson, Mississippi has more closet liberals than it ever had in the 60s. At that rate, if all the “liberal” husbands in the novel just joined together to ship Hilly out of town, life would have been a lot better for the maids. Because it’s Hilly who runs about town, making certain everyone is following segregation to the letter.

Generation gap with the maids and their employers

Just as I pointed out on this blog last year, the movie makes the mistake of following Kathryn Stockett’s lead and making most of the white employers young and oh so lovely, while the maids are cast as heavier, older and dark. It’s a stark contrast, reminiscent of movies of  how Hollywood cast black maids in the 30s, 40s and 50s. For a quick list on what else went wrong in the novel see this post:


Hugs all around

While the movie tries to play up the bond of sisterhood between both the maids and sympathetic liberal Skeeter (and Celia Foote). There was no touching between liberal Skeeter and her new friend Aibileen until the end of the novel,  three examples (in no particular order) are when Aibileen compliments Skeeter’s long hair and fingers a strand,  the maid also initiates a hug with Skeeter, and Skeeter takes Aibileen’s hand. One thing movies from the 70s tried to convey was that blacks were STILL BEING OPPRESSED. Yet The Help (novel) makes it seem as though Jackson is as idyllic as Mayberry in some scenes.

Celia gives Minny a hug, which is supposed to make moviegoers chuckle and go "Awww"

So what happens next? After The Help takes us back into a gentler, re-imagined past, the reason being made clear by author Micki McElya in her book Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007“so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves — of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism — seem not to exist at all.”

So in its own way, The Help is a peace offering of sorts.

But what future offerings are in store from Hollywood?

Will there be a steampunk mystery or pyschological thriller brave enough to cast a minority in the lead? How about part one of Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novel, The Way of Kings, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, or will someone be ambitious enough to attempt Isabelle Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns? How about Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of The Street? It would be a demanding role and powerhouse of a plot for whomever is cast as Recy Taylor or Rosa Parks.

Regardless, in the meantime all we can do is wait.


This post is still being developed.

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