The Backlash against The Help: Let me count the ways

Posted on August 13, 2011

3


There’s a small, but growing chorus of discontent regarding the movie version of The Help.

And from what I can tell of the film reviews, there were a few alterations made that people need to know about.

For instance in case you were wondering where the black males who were paired with the maids in the book went to, or didn’t even realize any characters had been romantically linked with the maids Constantine and Aibileen, I’ve got the scoop here.

The only one the film references is Leroy, the violently brutish, brain cell lacking hubby of Minny, the “sassy” maid.

Aibileen first makes reference of how most view Leroy:  

So when she call, Leroy gone give her Miss Walter number cause he a fool (Pg 26). Leroy’s the main black male protag and he’s drunk most of the time as well as abusive to his wife (and his children). No redeeming qualities, no reason given why Minny has married him and has five children with him and a sixth on the way. His reason for hitting Minny?  Well he gives his answer on page 413:

“Why? Why are you hitting me?”

He leaned down and looked me right in the face

“If I didn’t hit you Minny, who knows what you become.” Leroy’s answer to Minny’s question (Pg 413)

Here’s what film critic Wesley Moore, of the Boston Globe revealed (items in bold are my doing):

“Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett, adapted and directed the movie. He applies a thick coat of gloss to most scenes. It’s hard not to imagine what trouble the passive, largely absent husbands of these bigoted women are up to off-screen. The death of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers is reported on television, so white supremacy is in the air, but the movie would have us believe that the racism of the time was the stuff of bridge clubs. Indeed, the meanest male in the movie is the abusive, mostly unseen black husband who, in a poorly made sequence, comes after Minny.”

Link: http://articles.boston.com/2011-08-10/ae/29872908_1_hilly-holbrook-maids-emma-stone/2

 

 

That’s it. Right there.

One of the biggest mistakes the filmmakers made. Because while Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis can do loads of interviews whining about people needing to see the movie because of their “performances” both seem content to ignore the obvious, which is why all three of these maids really have no competent male in their lives. Or any significant other, whether male or female.

Why is this important?

Because African American males and females experienced segregation together, not apart. This tactic of separating the black male from the black female has its roots in slavery.

Stockett ignores the fact that her own maid Demetrie stayed married, for better or worse to the abusive Clyde who seems to have been a doppleganger for most of the male depictions.

Count ‘em. Clyde, Connor, Leroy and Minny’s father. Four African Americans males who were seriously wanting as men. All but the worst one dropped from the film, which is the black brute caricature:

Intra-racism with the Black Brute Stereotype

Now look at what Stockett did to the males in her own racial group, the ones who practiced segregation and benefited from the oppression of others.  

Stuart’s a heel, but he’s not an abusive heel. Carlton Phelan, renamed Robert in the movie, is a positive influence in Skeeter’s life. Raleigh Leefolt doesn’t leave Elizabeth to take care of two young children on her own, and Johnny Foote sticks by the ditzy scatterbrained Celia Foote. Skeeter’s older brother is in law school while Hilly’s husband seeks politcal office. These are perfect pin-up,  soap opera males in more ways than one.

Each is handsome in their own right. Yet when you compare them to the maids, I hate to say it, but the difference is obvious. The maids are portrayed as all older, plumper and de-sexed. Clearly, both Stockett and Tate Taylor have a view of African Americans that rests in the “we all look alike” category.

 

 

All the "blacker the better" maids in one room, as the film attempts to duplicate Stockett's words with heavy handed film shots

Some may argue that even the white males are rarely seen in the film. But that was to throw off the criticism coming their way regarding who the real villains of segregation were. And they were’nt bridge playing, twenty something females. They were males loyal to the division of the races and adhering to the laws of the land.

Only those “laws” had a name. They were known as Jim Crow.

Here’s how Stockett describes Demetrie, the maid she stated was the inspiration for all this:

Demetrie came to cook and clean for my family when she was twenty-eight. My father was fourteen, my uncle seven. Demetrie was stout and dark-skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Clyde. She wouldn’t answer me when I asked about him. But besides the subject of Clyde, she’d talk to us all day.

 

 

Photo of Demetrie, Stockett's grandparents maid.

Demetrie’s not a dark complexioned woman. But it would be interesting to see what complexion Ablene Cooper is.
**UPDATE**
Here’s a picture of the real Abilene Cooper:

Ablene Cooper's photo from the UK Daily Mail. This is the "real deal" Abilene

 

 

And here’s Viola Davis, made up to look like Aibileen Clark from the film. Notice any resemblence?

 

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

 

 

 
Here’s what Viola looks like sans Kathryn Stockett’s “vision” of a black maid:

 

Viola Davis on Essence Mag cover

 
Something else that struck me, especially after reading this account from the child of a former domestic, is how informal Stockett talks about Demetrie in the same section.

The blog is called Before Barack and the post is titled Sniffing Dirty Laundry: A True Story from “the Help’s” Daughter

“Have you ever thought about the fact that the woman you call ‘Odessa’ was the same woman my friends called ‘Mrs. Singley’? That she supported a family on the six dollars and bus fare (fifty cents round trip) your Grandmommy was paying her? That the woman you call your ‘best friend’ was forty years your senior and had another whole life of dignity, hopes, and dreams that had nothing to do with being in service to you and Grandmommy? That maybe “Odessa” didn’t like you as much as felt sorry for you because you were the baby of the family, the one your brother and sister slapped around, the one they were always leaving behind? You ever thought of that?”

Wedding Princess is silent, so I continue.

Link: http://www.beforebarack.com/2011/07/28/sniffing-dirty-laundry-a-true-story

Just like Mrs. Singley, Demetrie McLorn, or Mrs. McLorn deserved the same respect. This was a married woman, yet Stockett writes as if time has not changed her opinion of how Demetrie should be addressed. I searched the section of Too Little, Too Late to see if at least once, Stockett mentions Demetrie by her married name, or even mentions her by last name and she does not.

There is the page before that, where Stockett says this:

Finally, my belated thanks to Demetrie McLorn, who carried us all out of the hospital wrapped in our baby blankets and spent her life feeding us, picking up after us, loving us, and, thank God, forgiving us.

In the book Skeeter never refers to the maids who’ll provide her escape out of Jackson by their surnames. It’s just Aibileen and Minny, not Mrs. Clark or Mrs. Jackson. If this was done in the movie, someone please drop me a line and tell me in which scene.

But the separation of the black males from the black females was deliberate, and a routine tactic in literature. If by some chance a male was around, he was usually called “no-account” or lazy and shiftless. In the novel not one of the white males are addressed in this manner.

Even after Stuart dumps Skeeter, she thinks  He is a good man, Stuart. As much as I know what I’ve done is right, I can still understand his confusion and doubt (Pg 382)

Stuart and Skeeter have a lovers quarrel. "Things are fine around here, why do you want to go around starting trouble?" Okay, he's cute,that I cannot deny

But writing while black, Stockett has her maids demean the men in their lives like this:

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. (Pg 311, Minny)

Aibileen’s “Crisco” comment is coming up shortly. But here’s how Stockett explains Aibileen’s decision to stay celibate for oh, twenty years (from age 33 to 53 when the novel begins):

Time to time, I think I might find myself another man, one from my church. Problem is, much as I love the Lord, churchgoing man never do all that much for me. Kind a man I like ain’t the kind that stays around after spending all you money (not a typo. The book actually has it listed as “all you money“).

I made that mistake twenty years ago. When my husband Clyde left me for that no-count hussy up on Farish Street (no white female is called a “hussy” or “no-count” in the book, and I doubt in the movie) the one they call Cocoa. I figured I better shut the door for good on that kind a business. (Pg 22, Aibileen)

There must be a slender hope that no one notices this glaring omission. Funny how Hilly, Elizabeth, and Celia have no such man problems.

The book also mentions Minny’s father, describing like this: my no-good drunk daddy (Pg 38, Minny)

But when the novel mentions Constantine’s father who’s white, note the difference:

“Oh my daddy looooved me. Always said I was his favorite . . . He used to come over to the house ever Saturday afternoon and one time, he give me a set a ten hair ribbons, ten different colors. Brought em over from Paris, made out a Japanese silk. I sat in his lap from the minute he got there until he had to leave and Mama’d play Bessie Smith  on the Victrola he brung her and he and me’d sing . . . one time I was boo-hooing over hard feelings, I reckon I had a list a things to be upset about., being poor, cold baths, rotten tooth, I don’t know. But he held me by the head, hugged me to him for the longest time. When I looked up, he was crying too and he . . . did that thing I do to you so you know I mean it. Press his thumb up in my hand and he say . . . he sorry.” (Pgs 66-67 Constantine talking to Skeeter about her dad, who father several bi-racial children with her mother)

We’ve got a president who identifies himself as African American, who comes from a white mother and black father. Yet when The Help was released in 2009, Stockett filled the book with black males like Leroy, Minny’s father and Connor, the man who beds and abandons Constantine.

From the novel, Aibileen is the narrator (items in bold are my doing):

“She’d been with your mama a  few years. That’s where she met the father, Connor. He worked on your farm, lived back there in Hotstack.” Aibileen shakes her head. “We was all surprised Constantine would go and . . . get herself in the family way. Some folks at church wasn’t so kind about it, especially when the baby come out white. Even though the father was black as me.” (Pg 358)

That’s why Constantine has no significant other in the movie, because for whatever Kathryn Stockett reasoned, this character becomes an asexual hermit, just like Aibileen. This is the MAMMY TROPE, the loyal, no life of her own, living all alone, black woman on call 24/7 to provide nothing but love and nurturing. And it’s a myth about black women that has been resurrected in The Help

Cicely Tyson as Constantine in film version of The Help, coddling a young Skeeter

This is sad. When I recall  Cicely Tyson, it’s for the roles she played  like A Woman called Moses, Sounder, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. One of her earliest TV roles was on the gritty drama East Side, West Side, as secretary Jane Foster.

The episode I recall was titled  Who do you kill?

A young African-American couple battle economic and social woes. Joe can only find menial jobs and to make ends meet Ruth works in a cheap bar. Then tragedy strikes their child. (segment blurb by www.imdb.com)

James Earl Jones was Joe. Diana Sands was his wife Ruth. George C.  Scott was the social worker.

A Harlem couple faces the ultimate tragedy

Author: JAtheDJ from Alexandria, Virginia

“This episode remains controversial after more than 40 years. The crushing oppression of racism and ghetto life that still taints this country is hauntingly portrayed and the acting is brilliant, particularly that of James Earl Jones.

“East Side West Side” was canceled after 26 episodes largely because America in 1963, as now, was not ready to confront the effects of racism on the society. CBS affiliates in the Deep South refused to air this episode, and sponsors were unwilling to underwrite the program.

Filmed on location in New York, the show’s hard edge and unflinching honesty are wonderful to watch. Unlike its counterpart “Naked City,” which, while still a great show, is somewhat dated, East Side West Side may still be ahead of its time. A must see! “

Review Link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0568763/

 

 

I was too young to remember the whole segment, but the anguish the parents exhibited upon finding their child mauled in the crib haunts me to this day. I felt it, as if they’d reached through the black and white screen and pulled my heart out of my puny little chest. My mother and father were crying at the end of the episode, not only because of its truth, but of watching powerful and non demeaning performances. Diana Sands and James Earl Jones mourn the loss of their child, bitten by rats in their tenement apartment.

You have to understand that whenever someone of color (not just black, but even a hispanic who looked black) was on a show, word spread throughout the neighborhood and everyone made sure to watch.

That’s the actress I respond to and care to remember. The Cicely Tyson who proudly wore  an afro before it was even popular.

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, early 60s stage photo

Aibileen, the character Viola Davis plays and the one many reviewers praise, well here’s her “backstory”:
She’d been married to a man named Clyde, and like Constantine’s man Connor had done, Clyde leaves Aibileen to fend for herself and their child.
Aibileen’s description of her estranged husband, during a word game when her son Treelore was younger:
One day I say Crisco. He scratch his head. He just can’t believe I done won the game with something simple as Crisco. Came to be a secret joke with us, meaning something you can’t dress up no matter how you try. We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known.  (Pg 5)

Stockett can’t let it go though. She has to add in this degrading joke, a known insulting myth about African Americans during segregation (Minny is talking to Aibileen, and she’s the first speaker (items in bold are my doing):

“You know Cocoa, the one Clyde run off with?”

“Phhh. you know I never forget her.”

“Week after Clyde left you, I hear that Cocoa wake up to 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.”

My mouth drop open. Why she never tell me this before? “You saying people think I got the black magic?”

“I knew it worry you 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)

I don’t think this conversation is in the movie.

But for those who don’t understand what all the fuss is about, understand that one of the roadblocks against equality was how blacks were viewed differently than whites. In order to keep us down and subservient, lies were spread. Degrading myths that claimed we carried venereal disease. Even our very young:

The spreading of lies printed in a 1963 paper

 

 

 

 

wim-wednesdays-in-mississippi, residents talk about blacks having venereal diseases and that northern agitators are communists

For more on WIM, you can click their name in blog link sidebar on this site. A film is being made on Wednesdays in Mississippi, and based on the need to have archived information like this available, any support that can be offered is greatly appreciated. Please understand that the women who went out and publicly risked their lives were the real heroes, as were the countless domestics who still joined in with the civil rights movement, knowing full well their activities were being noted. Yet they pressed on. Change didn’t start with a whisper. Secrecy and intimidation had been the way of the south for far too long. Change was heard loud and clear because of scenes like this:

Photo by Charles Moore. Two African American women being attacked. Note the bat in the man's hand while another man pummels a woman with his fists.

 

 

 

 

Alex Wilson's attack continues

 

 

 

 

Newspaper editor Alex Wilson being attacked by group of bigots

 

 

 

 

The kick seen 'round the world. Alex Wilson is attacked by mob and the world finally sees what African Americans subjected to.

 

 

Take a real good look at these pictures. Because scenes like this weren’t uncommon during segregation. The white washing of the time period by those behind The Help only makes the movie look more absurd when comparing it to true history. Is it any wonder that some are asking why Dreamworks would view what African Americans went through as a Dramedy, when mockery of the oppression their own culture went through would never be tolerated? Where’s the jolly, want to give a Jewish prisoner a hug and a squeal Nazi wife in Schindler’s List? You won’t find one. Yet just like during segregation, the plight of African Americans are being played for laughs on screen.

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

 By Author and Educator Martha Southgate
“There have been thousands of words written about Stockett’s skills, her portrayal of the black women versus the white women, her right to tell this story at all. I won’t rehash those arguments, except to say that I found the novel fast-paced but highly problematic. Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.
The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight — and more important, it was not their idea.Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation. What’s more, to imply that what the maids Aibileen and Minny are working against is simply a refusal on everyone’s part to believe that ”we’re all the same underneath” is to simplify the horrors of Jim Crow to a truly damaging degree. “
Read the full article here:

 

 

 

 

The National Association of Black Women Historians  issued a smack down to both the novel and the film version of The Help:

 

“Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers”

 

And also in the form of a PDF: http://www.abwh.org/images/pdf/TheHelp-Statement.pdf

 

 

Here’s journalism instructor  and author Valerie Boyd’s take on the movie for Arts Critic ATL.com (items in bold are my doing):

“The Help,” a feel-good movie — for white people

“In fact, the movie ends on a falsely uplifting note, with Aibileen claiming to feel liberated after being fired while Skeeter plans to go shopping with her mother for a new wardrobe before starting her big new job in New York City. Aibileen is now an unemployed maid, Skeeter is moving forward in her life of white privilege — and the filmmakers expect viewers to feel good about this.

The problem is, many white viewers will.

Director (and screenwriter) Tate Taylor, a white Mississippian, presents his white characters in such stark, simplistic terms that white viewers will naturally identify with Skeeter, who the director wants us to see as heroic (despite what more politically conscious viewers will see as her exploitation of Aibileen’s ideas and words). Those well-meaning white moviegoers also will find it easy to distance themselves from Hilly, a society girl whose racism is so cartoonish that it becomes laughable rather than alarming. No contemporary filmgoer will see herself in a walking stereotype like Hilly. Of course, white viewers will say, I’m not like that.”

See the full review here:

http://www.artscriticatl.com/2011/08/film-review-the-help-a-feel-good-movie-for-white-people/

 

 

The touch Skeeter dared not do.

For as much as I enjoy the talent of Viola Davis and would love for Octavia Spencer to have her day in the sun, the way these two actresses ignored what was in the book, as Stockett threw black men under the bus in order to canonize the white males she loved and respected, while making  the”evil”  of segregation into a Cruella De Ville, live cartoonish villain like Hilly Holbrook cannot be ignored.

I have no doubt Davis and Spencer spoke up for changes in the screenplay.

But somewhere along the way, whether in her upbringing via grandparents who insisted on Demetrie performing under the antiquated rules of segregation, even in the 70s and 80s (remember, Stockett was born in 1969) some of it clearly rubbed off on Kathryn Stockett:

But my older brother and sister weren’t allowed to bother Demetrie during her own lunch break. Grandmother would say, “Leave her alone now, let her eat, this is her time, ” and I would stand in the kitchen doorway, itching to get back to her. Grandmother wanted Demetrie to rest so she could finish her work., not to mention, white people didn’t sit at the table while a colored person was eating. (Pg 449, Too Little, Too Late)

Stockett goes on further to say:

That was just a normal part of life, the rules between blacks and whites.  As a little girl, seeing black people in the colored part of town (I need to interject here. I mean WTF, who still talks like this? “The colored part of town”) even if they were dressed up or doing fine, I remember pitying them. I am so embarressed to admit it now.

No, what she should be embarrassed to admit (and Tate Taylor) is how they keep passing their “Friendship” with Octavia Spencer around like she’s some sort of mascott.

Stockett repeats this in a number of  interviews (items in bold are my doing):

“I had an actress friend, uh she was really an acquaintance at the time. Her name is Octavia Spencer and she’s so amazingly talented. She um, you know she… I would watch her at parties and I would watch her mannerisms and her gestures and she’s just hysterical.  And she’s very well educated and extremely intelligent and but you know,  Octavia, she will tell you like it is.

And I started picking up on that and trying to incorporate that in the character Minny. And uh, still not knowing Octavia very well when I approached her I said hey, I wrote a book and you’re one of the main characters. She just rolled her eyes and walked away.”

“Oh Gosh, she was so nice, she went on tour with me. She read the African American parts and I read the white parts. And it was quite a show.”

Audio Interview hosted by Steve Bertrand of Barnes and Noble’s Meet the Writers (no transcript available)

http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

 

 

Of note is that this is one of three known audio interviews where Stockett claims Medgar Evers was “bludgeoned” instead of shot.

Its sort of looking like Demetrie and probably Ablene Cooper (the woman who filed a lawsuit and Robert Stockett’s current maid) and now Octavia Spencer are the only black people Stockett’s ever known. It’s no wonder the characters read as stereotypes.

Listen, writers aren’t under any obligation to befriend the racial group they want to write about. But at least doing research on the culture you plan on paying “homage” to would help, lest you end up with the type of embarressing gaffes like Stockett has in her best selling novel. There’s nothing about the beauty of the black culture. Just regurgitated, caricatures and broad tropes.

The movie doesn’t have the “Tragic Mulatto” Lulabelle, who was renamed Rachel in the movie. And its probably the better for it.

But what it does have is the “look at them, why they’re so all over the place in their bigotry of blacks, they’re harmless” housewives who squeal and shriek and clap for each other while sniffing indignantly at their domestics.

 

 

Shrieks and squeals from Skeeters pals

Harmless indeed.

These were the real culprits.

 

 

A lynching in Marion, Indiana 1930. The ultimate price black men paid during segregation

 

 

 

 

The Lynching of Laura Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 Updated to add:

“The scene where Viola Davis is sitting on a toilet in a garage in 108 degrees, and then a white woman comes out and tells her to hurry up was visually brutal. To me that’s worse than seeing a lynching. It just is.” – Quote by Tate Taylor, director and screenwriter of The Help in an interview with Chris Witherspoon of TheGrio.com

Link: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/director-says-thats-worse-than-seeing-a-lynching/

Maybe “backlash” isn’t the right word at a moment like this. Click the link above for the full story.

 

 

Next up: The names of the fallen in Stockett’s misty colored Mississippi

To be continued. . .

Posted in: Blog