I kept seeing this question come up when I’d check the search engine terms on my site, so I thought it was time that I made a post addressing it.
“What do black people think of The Help?”
African Americans are just as varied in their opinions of The Help as they were when a similar book with race as a tantilizing addition to the plot was released in 1933.
That novel was Imitation of Life, a book more aligned with The Help than the other novel some tried comparing it to early on, which was To Kill a Mockingbird.
We’re just as divided as some were on the merits of Amos n’ Andy.
Back during the show’s heyday when it was voiced by two white actors in blackface, it was reported:
Meanwhile, African Americans argued passionately among themselves about the program. While one black newspaper gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures demanding that the show be banned, another chose Amos ‘n’ Andy’s white stars as guests of honor at a parade and picnic for the black children of Chicago.”
But in order to answer the question “What do black people think of The Help?” effectively, it’s important that readers understand the history African Americans have with not only film, but literature in America.
Here are but a few examples of what early screenwriters created to portray African Americans on film:
The cowering male meant to induce laughter with how confused and slow of mind he behaved – Stepin Fetchit perfected and got rich off this character
The loyal, self-effacing, and also slow of wit female maid, most often portrayed by Louise Beavers.
The bossy, loud mouth maid who could be portrayed by any black actress, as noted below.
However, Hattie Mc Daniel’s lovable cantakerous Mammy walked away with the Oscar in 1940 in the best supporting actress category.
These were roles African Americans had supposedly left behind. Because they were the only roles blacks were allowed to play during segregation.
There were a few exceptions, like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, beautiful actresses who didn’t default into the stereotype of what a black maid should look like.
But it also must be understood that no matter how beautiful or talented the black performer, domestic and slave parts were the primary roles available. Sometimes an artist could get around it by performing “specialty” numbers because they could either sing or dance. But even then, the entertainer’s segment could be edited out so as not to “offend” southern audiences.
Even more noteworthy were the few roles where a black male was cast as a soldier. Actor James Edwards paved the way for Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington in two such productions. One film was Home of The Brave, where he played a soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Shock and also experiencing racism, and Bright Victory, where he played a blind soldier.
As time passed (and unless you have TCM – Turner Classic Movies or know a bit about the history of blacks on film, then you may not be aware of much of what I’m referring to).
Even some black journalists and writers don’t appear to know the history of their own culture in literature and in film.
That’s probably why the statement released by the ABWH (The National Association of Black Women Historians) took some by surprise.
Especially since the novel The Help virtually had no criticism when it was first released as a novel.
And also in the form of a PDF: http://www.abwh.org/images/pdf/TheHelp-Statement.pdf
Early criticism of Kathryn Stockett’s novel was ignored, especially any dissent coming from the black community. Our voices were not widely publicized in lieu of the glowing reviews for Stockett’s “authentic” black characters. There again, this was in keeping with previous novels penned by white authors.
For example, criticism of Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel Showboat and its stage incarnations were protested, until finally over the years changes were made. One major change concerned song lyrics. Instead of singing “Niggers work all day on the Mississippi” which had to be sung by black thespians, the line was changed to “Here we go working all day on the Mississippi”
The same sort of tinkering was done with the movie version of The Help, as the novel has Aibileen severely loathing her own skin color (by now the roach scene in the book is infamous). Stockett has Aibileen comparing her color to one of the filthiest insects on the planet where Aibileen states He black. Blacker than me.
When Kathryn Stockett’s polarizing novel was released with at least three characters who fit the retro mode Mammy (loyal, self effacing maid named Aibileen, loud mouth grumpy one named Minny, older earth mother type named Constantine) some black reviewers lauded the characters:
NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates had this to say:
A Nuanced Novel Of Race In The Deep South
According to my research (which is still on-going) Grisby Bates has the earliest known review linking The Help with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Grisby Bates’ quote was picked up by several other news sources, and the whole joining of The Help with Harper Lee’s novel was off and running.
Even Octavia Spencer, who eventually landed the role of Minny got into the act, popping up on different blogs and sites if a review of Stockett’s novel wasn’t entirely complimentary.
Click the image for a larger view:
Early on many of the reviews neglected to mention there were pockets of discontent regarding how the African American characters were portrayed. Finally, Michele Norris of NPR brought it up in a 2009 interview with Kathryn Stockett:
‘The Help’ Author Says Criticism Makes Her ‘Cringe’
NORRIS: You know, Southern blacks and Southern whites often sound like each other in terms of their vernacular, but the black Southern dialect does have distinct differences. How did you know when you got it right, when you actually were writing in an authentic black woman’s voice from the 1960s?
Ms. STOCKETT: I guess when I felt like I was having a conversation with Demetrie, but, Michele, I didn’t get it all right. I took liberties that made me feel like I was telling the story in the way it should be told, but I never considered when I was writing how it was going to make other people feel.
I think that’s a huge distinction between writing your first book and your second book. When you’re writing your second book, you can’t help but think how it’s going to make the readers feel.
NORRIS: You know, I’m sure that you know this, that some black woman readers are very uncomfortable in reading the book. The book touches a chord with them, and many are quite angry, either at the situation the domestics find themselves in or the language that you use or the fact that a white woman wrote this book and attempted to get inside the head of black domestics.
What’s your reaction to that? Are you surprised, or do you take some satisfaction that you actually touched a nerve, that you got some sort of emotion, that people are talking about your book?
Ms. STOCKETT: I’m a Southerner – I never take satisfaction in touching a nerve.
As the novel was released world wide, reviews and accolades poured in. Here’s a cringe-worthy example, to say the least (the items in bold are my doing)
The Help by Kathryn Stockett Fig Tree, £12.99; 451pp This is a big, warm girlfriend of a book about female love that transcends race and class. It’s set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 and Aibileen is a black maid, raising her 17th white baby. “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do,” she says, “along with all the cooking and the cleaning.” Her best friend, Minny, is a short, stout termagant of a cook. Skeeter is a white girl fresh out of college who is now expected to get married. These three women manage to reach across the gulf, to try to change their world. The author, herself a native of Jackson, has a fine understanding of the delicate relationship between Southern belles and their mammies.
While many of the reviewers who’d given the novel their blessing grudgingly acknowledged in 2010 there was criticism, others chose to solely focus on the dialect and ignore more pressing issues.
In American Literature, portraying minority groups speaking broken english is nothing new. Many times authors are able to get away with this because American culture defaults to the dominant racial group, which is white. Some authors write to attract this group, whether by having a white heroine paired with a white hero, and then perhaps listing a minority as a side character or no minority representation at all.
It appears a number of moviegoers, much like readers for the novel were enamored because there was a protagonist they could identify with.
That character is Skeeter, a perky and pesky Ole Miss graduate played by Emma Stone in the film.
What’s interesting is that many African Americans don’t state that they identify with either Aibileen, Constantine or Minny.
Many of their reviews make reference to an older relative, such as a grandmother who was a domestic or mother who may have been a maid and that perhaps the three black characters represent their experiences. There again, the opinions vary.
Actor Wendell Pierce of HBO’s Treme, took his mother to view to film. Here’s what he stated:
The Help tops US box office but hits controversy
Adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help, about white women and black housekeepers, is criticised by Wire actor Wendell Pierce as ‘segregation lite’.
” . . .The Help was well done but was a passive version of the terror of Jim Crow South . . . My mother told me how she wasn’t allowed in the kitchen. She couldn’t eat during a 12-hour shift . . . She couldn’t drink water from the kitchen but had to go to the faucet outdoors . . . Watching the film in Uptown New Orleans to the sniffles of elderly white people while my 80-year-old mother was seething, made clear distinction … the story was a sentimental primer of a palatable segregation history that is Jim Crow light. . . ”
See the full article here:
And children of those who’d been The Help spoke out (of which I’m one, and created this site to voice my dissenting opinion)
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.
A counter perspective:
In Defense of ‘The Help’
By Demetria L. Lucas
“At its roots, “The Help” is a story about sisterhood between women, showcasing the way we forge bonds and the way we break the ones that should exist. Every woman is oppressed by sexism, racism, class or culture, and in the case of “The Help,” all three. A hard look, reveals the flaws of White womanhood that would go on to launch the feminist movement of the Seventies; dead-end opportunities, being overwhelmed by responsibilities and expectations of homemaking and child rearing, maintaining reliance upon their husbands for survival, etc.
These limited women find their only power by lauding what privilege they do have over their Black maids, and each other. The Black women don’t have anyone to overpower, and rely on each other to find their strength to keep on keeping on. It’s only when these two races of women come together that they gain any progress.
“The Help” is not a perfect film (or book, which I finally read last weekend— and couldn’t put down). There are cringe-worthy moments such as the white heroine’s benevolent obsession with the maid who guided her through a tough adolescence. That rang my Mammy bell. Loud. And watching Black folks swallow daily indignities wasn’t entertaining; it ticked me off. Still, if you can muster the energy to explore the nuances, you’ll find there’s more to glean from the film than you can get from a knee-jerk reaction to the subject matter.”
I can’t speak for all African Americans. But I do know that I was sorely disappointed with the novel.
And in this post I’ve tried list opinions both pro and con for the book and the movie.
But just because Viola Davis does an admirable job in the part of Aibileen, that doesn’t mean the role isn’t a stereotype.
Just because I don’t care for the part or the movie (thus I refuse to see it, after the book left me highly offended) that does not mean I’m looking down on those whose professions were as domestics. On the contrary, I have even more respect for them. It’s just that I don’t believe the book on which the movie is based portrayed the black maids with the respect they deserved. Or that the time period was given the gravity it should have. In addition, though the book and the film are titled The Help, the story is really Skeeter’s, as the maids are simply along to help this character achieve her dream to work in publishing and to leave Jackson. The “sisterhood” being claimed by readers and movie goers appears to be one sided to me. From the reviews of the film, the movie doesn’t deviate from the novel ever having Skeeter publicly proclaim solidarity with the maids of Jackson. Or even inviting them to meet over her home. Skeeter even admitted they weren’t “Friends” as she reveals this from the novel “I know we’re not friends. I’m not that naive.”
As an example of true friendship, here’s nineteen year old Joan Trumpaer Mulholland showing just how much she values her association with Anne Moody, another college activist and author of the novel Coming of Age in Mississippi. Along with Hunter Grey Bear, they are seen in this famous photo of the 1963 Jackson Woolworth Sit-in photo where they’ve being beaten, jeered and pelted with condiments:
I liken what African Americans, both male and female went through during segregation as a Black Holocaust, as the murders, rapes and destruction of whole families lasted well over a century, with its effects still being felt.
Click on image for a larger view:
Stockett’s attempt to portray the white males who kept the wheels of segregation turning, and some of whom were the “muscle” for pro-segregationist groups like the Citizen’s Council (formerly called the White Citizen’s Council and conveniently omitted in the novel and the movie so as not to “offend” southerners once again) plus the ultra violent KKK, as well as a government entity called the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission read to me as an author trying to white wash the time period to suit a revisionist viewpoint, as well as avoid just how close her own family’s roots were in connection to the Citizen’s Council.
The author admitted in the back of the book that her grandparents practiced segregation well into the 70s and the 80s even after the practice had been outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Stockett also admitted in a UK interview that her grandfather’s stables were a place many influential members of the community visited, saying:
“Robert Stockett Sr was an equestrian and he ran a stable, with retired horses given to him by the Southern Cavalry. Everyone in Mississippi knew about Stockett’s Stables. ‘It was a place where people gathered; a lot of older men came there to sit on the porch and talk; people would say that there were more laws made on the porch of Stockett Stables than in the state capital.’
All this is no reflection on Viola Davis, because she didn’t create the character or write the screenplay. It was simply her job to breathe life into the character of Aibileen, and that’s what she did.
The character she portrays lives alone, because that’s how onscreen Mammies are written. She lavishes all her attention and love on Mae Mobley, which is another requirement white writers made of black Mammies, that they put the white children they’re assigned to first and foremost. Excerpt from an actual account from a real domestic, recording in the early 1900s:
A Negro Nurse
More Slavery at the South
From The Independent, 72 (Jan. 25, 1912): 196-200. New York: Published for the proprietors, 1912.
” . . . I live a treadmill life; and I see my own children only when they happen to see me on the streets when I am out with the children, or when my children come to the “yard” to see me, which isn’t often, because my white folks don’t like to see their servants’ children hanging around their premises. . . .”
For more real life historical accounts, please see this post
Like many of her writing contemporaries, Kathryn Stockett failed to note the number of maids who used their employment to pay for their college education, never intending to stay as a domestic (items in bold are my doing):
For even more recent accounts, please see this post:
In the fantasies by some white authors which long for black affection (usually female, as the male is a thorn) the black male is usually non-existent, in line with painting African American men as “no-account” and “no-good.” Both labels are used for the black males in the novel The Help. The movie wound up cutting a few of these stereotypical characters, yet Leroy, the antebellum inspired black brute was kept.
Unfortunately just like the novel, moviegoers fail to note that Minny is supposed to be an abused woman. Most just talk about how “funny” she is. Which is again in line with previous on screen Mammies of old who were enlisted to provide humor.
An example of an animated Mammy caricature for children:
Classic children’s novels also contained this maid/Mammy caricature. Raggedy Ann had Belindy as a caretaker for the stuffed dolls.
Delilah, Mammy, Annie, these a just a few names of female maids from Hollywood history. And now The Help’s Aibileen, Minny and Constantine join them as being “beloved” caricatures of African Americans.
While Delilah and Annie both had a daughter, they sought no further companionship and simply played the shoulder to lean on for the white star. In fact, much like in The Help, these characters assisted the white lead to acheive her dreams.
In the case of Delilah, the 1933 screenplay for the film Imitation of Life stuck close to the novel, as Delilah gave up her family’s pancake recipe. In the 1959 version Delilah’s name is changed to Annie, who has a young daughter almost the same age as the lead character, re-named Laura.
Screen siren Lana Turner played Laura, and the audience watches Laura’s rise from a model to a broadway star. Yet Annie remains the housekeeper, content to bask in Laura’s triumps as well as comfort her when the actress experiences a broken heart.
Annie, like Delilah is relegated to a supporting character, behind her own light enough to pass for white daughter. Juanita Moore earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the long suffering, loyal maid Annie.
In each version of the film, the lead character is the white mother and her daughter’s love triangle with a family friend, and when the action shifts to Delilah/Annie, the focus is on the daughter who longs to be white.
In The Help, the mother daughter dynamics are a bit different, but Skeeter and Charlotte’s testy relationship is front and center.
As an avid reader, it’s not as if I haven’t been able to relate to the white characters. If you read enough fantasy and paranormal romance then you know that often the lead characters in this genre tend to be white.
But The Help was billed as a novel that dealt with the unsung domestics.
Yet a closer look at the novel, the movie and other films dealing with black domestics reveals while Kathyrn Stockett’s execution was different, the black characters were essentially following a similar pattern to previous incarnations.
1) The lead domestic is alone or without a significant other
a. Aibileen is alone, in both the novel and the movie. So is Constantine.
b. Delilah is alone, Annie is alone, Mammy is alone (though she’s also a slave)
c. TV had Beulah, played by both Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers. Again, this character was
2) The supporting domestic provides comedic relief
a. An example would be Prissy from Gone With The Wind. Her famous line was “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies”
b. In The Help, Minny’s signature line may very well be “Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life”
c. In Beulah the comedic relief was her friend Oriole.
3) The African American male is usually nagged by the maid for being lazy, shiftless or generally up to no good
a. Imitation of Life (the novel) has Delilah revealing her husband was a “White nigger” as well as a bigamist
b. In The Help, Kathryn Stockett creates Leroy, Connor, Clyde and Minny’s father. Each of these males are negatively labeled. Connor and Clyde are absentee fathers, with Clyde getting the additional negative title of Crisco because Aibileen deems him “The greasiest no-count you ever known.” She also trains their young son Treelore to refer to his father as Crisco, further emasculating the black male and making him the ultimate villain of segregation, at least for Stockett’s maids. Even Constantine is without a significant other, (Connor) and lives alone for the remainder of her life. Leroy is a violent drunk who physically abuses Minny while their children live in terror of his rage. Minny also calls her father a drunk a well as “no good.”
No white male, not even the naked pervert who Minny confronts is called a name. On the contrary, Kathryn Stockett plays omni-present narrator and “tells” the reader that Stuart is a good man, that Carlton Phelan is an honest man, and that Senator Stoolie Whitworth is a conflicted man who’s just doing the will of his constituents. Stockett also rehabilitates Constantine’s white father, even though he’s sired several bi-racial children and is unable to provide for them. After he cries and tells Constantine that he’s sorry, he joins the list of white males the author seems intent on keeping untainted.
For more on where The Help went wrong with the African American characters, please see this post
To be continued . . .