I shouldn’t have to state this, but I will.
Yes, The Help was based on a “beloved” novel (see my post on “beloved” novels, where many of them contain offensive depictions of minorities, yet they’re still crowned “beloved” by some non-minorities in these two posts Beware the Beloved Character and Classics We Now Question). And yes, The Help grossed well over 200 million when counting DVD sales, overseas and domestic box office, and its still popular, both in novel form and the film. But the PR spun reason for the novel’s creation and the unwitting (?) errors and resurrection of highly stereotypical tropes of blacks, in both the book and film didn’t leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy, unlike some who enjoyed either the book, the movie, or both (I refused to view the movie. I read the book, and downloaded both versions of the screenplays of the film). And I’ll say this also. I recall segregation.
These are solely my opinions, and this list is in no particular order:
1) Oprah doesn’t play a MAMMY in The Butler
Oprah’s character is named Gloria Gaines in The Butler. She’s flawed, has an active sex life, and at least gets a decent wardrobe budget. In short, she’s been given the chance to act like a normal woman back during segregation, which is a more rounded portrayal of a black female in my opinion. The film is very loosely influenced by the life of a real white house butler named Eugene Allen.
The Help had three MAMMIES, both on the pages of the book and on screen.
Here’s an example of how Aibileen was described in an early screenplay of the book:
Click for a larger view:
The items in yellow are the stereotypes associated with blacks in America, especially those who are dark in complexion, which the book and the movie capitalized on for unsuspecting readers and moviegoers. In American history, dark complexioned African Americans were used to promote negative propaganda on how other blacks behaved and SHOULD BEHAVE. Some examples of what items and ads were popular in depicting blacks during segregation, which those involved in the making and marketing of the book and movie glossed over:
To review: Aibileen was a rip-off of Delilah from the 1933 novel and original 1934 film version of Imitation of Life. Long suffering, cowering, cringing, with the patience of a saint and more important, she was asexual (blindly loyal Mammies can’t have a longtime companion, as per their historical depiction, because they’re the “good” chaste Mammy). The novel has a seriously low down depiction of Aibileen’s lothario of a husband Clyde, running off with Cocoa in the offensive “spoilt cootchie” scene where Aibileen thinks that by the grace of God, she’s given a venereal disease to her rival because she prayed and everyone in her church thinks she’s got a special pipeline to God’s ear (Pgs 23-24 in the hard copy of the novel). The scene also contains this line “You saying people think I got the black magic?” stated by Aibileen, even though she’s supposed to be a devout Christian, which adds yet another negative slur from segregation, that black Americans revert back to paganism or voodoo, no matter what religion we believe in. It’s also important to note that Kathryn Stockett and Octavia Spencer went on the road and performed this scene to sold out white audiences. Octavia Spencer apparently had no problem with Stockett inserting an often told slur about blacks during segregation. For more on their magical minstrel road tour, see this post
The movie makes no mention on Treelore’s daddy, thus cementing the often used stereotype of single black women without their child’s father in their lives.
Minny was a knock off of Mammy from Gone With The Wind, and just about every bossy black maid/domestic in film and television. Since the actress who portrayed Minny once worked as a comedian in real life, the part appeared “Taylor” made for Octavia Spencer.
Too bad she was saddled with cringe worthy, historically offensive lines like “Frying chicken tend to make you feel better about life” as though none of the principals involved in the movie had any inkling how fried chicken has been used to mock and malign blacks in American history:
I’m pretty sure Mary J is wondering how come The Help got a pass, while she got backlash:
“The Be Without You singer remained silent while critics slammed her for taking part in a short film that many deemed racist. But she told Martinez: ‘I would never just bust out singing about chicken and chicken wings.’ ”
“Burger King did not admit to pulling the ad because of the criticism. The fast food giant said it did so because of music licensing issues. Nonetheless, the company has since apologized to the singer.
And Blige also wanted to say sorry if it appeared she knew in advance how the commercial would turn out.
‘I want to apologize to everyone who was offended who thought I would do something that was so disrespectful to our culture,’ the Prison Song musician said.
‘I would never do anything like that. I thought I was doing something right.’ ”
Link to article on Mary’s quotes: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2166748/Mary-J-Blige-says-racist-Burger-King-advert-crushed-her.html
Constantine was the wise old sage Mammy, one who gives comfort and advice, much like all old Hollywood Mammies were enlisted to do. Veteran actress Ethel Waters played this particular trope to the hilt, on Broadway and on film (listen, I’ve got nothing but mad respect for Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters, as well as other entertainers who worked during segregation).
And if there’s still any doubt the maids were Mammies, here’s a quote from actress Viola Davis from an interview with Essence Magazine:
“Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multi-faceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not take the role because you feel in some ways it’s not a good message to send to Black people?” – Viola Davis, in a quote from Essence Magazine
Read more in my breakdown of the parts two beautiful actresses decided to play in https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/all-souled-out-in-the-help/
2) The poster of The Butler depicts you know, The Butler, while The Help’s poster went with the more the merrier approach, adding in the employers of The Help
The tagline claims “One Quiet Voice can Ignite A Revolution” but much like the restrained performance of Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day the character Forest Whitaker plays doesn’t really cause waves, unless its in reference to him asking for a raise for himself and the other staff twice. I’m guessing the tagline piggy backed off The Help’s “Change begins with a Whisper.”
The US cover of the novel chose the Disneyesque three little birdies, unlike the UK version:
In the novel of The Help, Aibileen and Minny wanted no part of the civil rights movement, as the plotline of helping Skeeter write the book “HELP” became their primary focus. This was changed for the film. Medgar Evers murder became the catalyst for assisting Skeeter, and not the jailing of Yule May as in the book. For more on this, please see the post Fact vs. Fiction surrounding The Help
3) Better integration dealing with the diversity of skin tones among the actors playing staff in The Butler
Thankfully the movie version of The Help didn’t stick with the misguided notion from the book. In the novel, there’s the separation of Lulabelle, Gretchen and Yule May as light in complexion, articulate and slim, in stark contrast to the Mammyfied trio of Minny, Aibileen and Constantine as heavy, dark and unable to speak English properly. However, what the film did in an attempt to correct this, was to make just about all the maids one complexion fits all, which was dark brown. All this did was reinforce the stereotype of having dark complexioned African Americans being relegated to domestic status, when real history shows even African Americans who were light in complexion were also steered into domestic work. Unfortunately, both now and during segregation there was a belief of excess physical prowess and limited mental intelligence within the black culture, and dark African Americans were pinned with this misguided theory far more than those who were light in skin tone. Sadly, both the book and the movie of The Help continued this offensive trend.
Lulabelle’s name was changed to Rachel in the movie, and the film also dropped the tragic mulatto storyline that was also a bust in the book.
The novel also had the highly insulting and totally WTF theory of “the blacker the better” line used by Skeeter to explain why all the maids she interviewed were described like this: “The women are tall, short, black like asphalt or caramel brown. If your skin is too white, I’m told, you’ll never get hired. The blacker the better. – (Pg 257) Skeeter
Now, take a look a pic of Mrs. Demetrie McLorn, the real maid from Kathryn Stockett’s childhood (publicly stated as the inspiration for the character of Aibileen), and someone Stockett claimed in the back of her book was “dark skinned”:
4) The lead character and his wife remain together in The Butler
Some of the criticism of The Butler concerns how one-note Forest Whitaker plays the part, and those upset at Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan (oh, and hating on Oprah and John Cusack) The Help was lauded even though the black male was demeaned something fierce in the book, with BS like:
“my no-good drunk daddy” – Minny, describing her father
“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 of the hard copy book. Minny, giving a biased and unproven sociological assessment of black men that should never have been part of the book, as its another stereotype and a negative myth that was spread during segregation).
“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-ccount you ever known” – (Pg 5 Aibileen trains her then adolescent son Treelore to call his absentee father Crisco)
During slavery, segregation and even today, far too often the black male was used as a scapegoat while black females were put on a fake pedestal because of how well we could cook, grin or watch somebody else’s kids. Black males of a certain age were usually considered “Brutes” and depicted as violence prone.
Very young black males and elderly males weren’t the issue (See Uncle Ben in your local grocery store).
It was when a black male became a young man that history shows they were the primary targets for a lynching or deadly assault. At just 14 years of age, Emmet Till was reportedly killed because he flirted with a white woman. In The Help, Connor beds and abandons Constantine to raise Lullabelle/Rachel alone. In keeping with the stereotype that follows dark complexioned blacks, Aibileen states “he was black as me” as if there’s some problem with being dark-skinned. And don’t get me started on Aibileen doing a color swatch test with a roach, where she states on page 189, “He black, blacker than me.” Bull. Shit.
Minny is paired with the brute named Leroy, who’s called a fool in the novel, and given this choice line “You don’t get tired. Not til the tenth month” (Pg 406 when Leroy corners a very pregnant Minny with asinine reasoning. And no, it’s not written as if its a joke. Leroy is serious when he says it).
So just like in the book, Aibileen is abandoned by her man, living alone in the movie. Minny leaves her husband and runs into the waiting arms of the good, hunky segregationist Johnny Foote and his blonde bombshell wife. And Constantine is abandoned by Connor and remains an asexual hermit, living to give love to Skeeter.
And to show just how unequal the treatment was behind the scenes regarding the black and white depictions, notice how two characters who practiced segregation in the film got marketed overseas:
That’s not all. While the black characters played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were praised for how kind and sassy they were, a double standard was at work in the PR department, focusing on the attractiveness of the white stars:
Click for a larger view
5) The Butler’s lack of merchandise
Trust me, this is a good thing. Unlike The Help’s collaboration with HSN where pots and pans by Emeril were touted as well as dresses that Hilly and her gal pals wore and perfume, in a misguided attempt to milk even more a profit without regard to the subject at hand. The only thing they didn’t sell were maid uniforms:
For more on the selling of The Help brand, see this post:
6) The historical accuracy backlash is a smoke screen
The movie states at the beginning that it was “inspired” by the story of Eugene Allen, who actually served in the white house as a butler. Mr. Allen’s story was told in the 2008 Washington post article “A Butler Well Served By this Election” written by Wil Haygood.
What has a number of very vocal critics up in arms, is the liberties taken, as if the film is based on the book. It’s one thing to state “inspired by”. It’s another to state “based on”. Controversy dogged the film “A Beautiful Mind” when events were changed and added. “The Hurricane” also edited out information that became the source of controversy during Oscar voting, and some believe the controversy cost Denzel Washington an Academy Award for Best Actor.
The Rape of Cecil Gaines mother:
Mariah Carey plays Cecil’s mother, who’s raped and her husband killed by a racist. While this didn’t happen in the childhood of the real butler (remember, “inspired” vs. “based on”) it’s not like black women weren’t disproportionately sexually assaulted during this time period. As chronicled in Danielle L. McGuire’s chilling non-fiction novel At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance , the assaults and gang rapes of black women weren’t given the gravity the crime needed.
“Long before Rosa Parks became famous for resisting Jim Crow laws, she was
engaged in advocating for social justice for black women who were the victims of
sexual violence at the hands of white men. Historian McGuire aims to rewrite the
history of the civil rights movement by highlighting sexual violence in the
broader context of racial injustice and the fight for freedom. Parks worked as
an investigator for the NAACP branch office in Montgomery, Alabama, specializing
in cases involving black women who had been sexually assaulted by white
men––cases that often went untried and were the political opposite of the
allegations of black men raping white women ending in summary lynching with or
without trials. McGuire traces the history of several rape cases that triggered
vehement resistance by the NAACP and other groups, including the 1975 trial of
Joan Little, who killed a white jailer who sexually assaulted her. Despite the
long tradition of dismissing charges brought by blacks against whites, several
of the cases ended in convictions, as black women asserted their right to be
treated justly. –Vanessa Bush –This text refers to the Hardcover
Discovered writings by Rosa Parks disclosed her fight against an employer who tried to sexually assault her. There’s also the recently deceased daughter of staunch segregationist and senator Strom Thurmond.
“An attorney for the former senator’s family confirmed in 2003 that Thurmond fathered a child with a teenage black housekeeper in 1925. Her mother, Carrie Butler, worked as a maid at the Thurmond family home in Edgefield, South Carolina. At the time of Washington-Williams’ birth, Butler was 16 and Thurmond was 22, unmarried and living in his parents’ home.”
So Essie Mae Washington-Williams mother was probably 15 when she conceived.
And here’s an actual letter, voicing a plea from a group of black southern ministers regarding the sexual assaults of black females, from very young children onward. This is a scan from an actual newspaper in Jackson, MS from 1963:
So the primary argument appears to be that the movie shows a rape and other scenes, because its some critics insist upon it staying true to the life of Eugene Allen, when it’s not and never claimed to be about Allen. When Allen’s son gave the film his blessing, that gave critics additional “proof” to claim it should have stayed true to Allen’s life.
But here’s the thing, had Lee Daniels gone ahead and never revealed where he got the idea for the film, and those who knew Allen’s tale realized the similarities, he’d still be in trouble. Unlike Kathryn Stockett, who denied basing the part of Aibileen on real life maid Abilene Cooper, even though there are similarities between Cooper’s life and the fictional Aibileen Clark, like their first names and the nick name of “Aibee” that Mae Mobley calls Aibileen. The real deal Abilene Cooper also looks more like the film version of the character, played by Viola Davis, and in a UK interview she states that Kathryn Stockett’s sister-in-law told her the character was based on her:
” Abilene says she first learned of the book when she arrived at work to find her employer in tears. ‘Carroll was crying and she says, ‘Miss Abilene, I’ve got something to tell you.’
She says, ‘Kathryn’s wrote a book and you are the main character. Rob told her not to use your name. ’ Then a copy of the book arrived for Abilene from the author with a note saying that while a main character is an ‘African-American child carer named Aibileen’, she bore no resemblance to the real Abilene.”
Was any of the information listed above carried by the major US media outlets? NO. So why the double standard, why was there a need to ignore the controversy over The Help, yet a conservation news station like Fox wants to rant about The Butler?
Adding in Obama and the “yes we can” slogan further inflamed critics of The Butler who believe the movie has a liberal agenda, even though the film includes just about every president from Eisenhower to Obama (all but two in that time period are missing, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford)
The smoke screen is when counterarguments are brought up, critics still want to hold the movie to sticking with Eugene’s life, or basically, don’t say anything bad about Republicans, you liberal!
Thus the whole thing has become political, divided along the lines of those who believe Reagan is wrongly portrayed, because he’s still the Great Communicator and a symbol of all things conservatives should aspire to.
Also, adding a second younger son to the fictional Gaines family, who dies over in Vietnam is another criticism, as well as the activism of Gaines’ older son in the movie. Oh, and there’s the complaints about the movie beating “Kick Ass 2” at the box office, and also The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones as well as The World’s End.
Now, a few of the reviews for the film:
“What the film never settles on is a point of view: Is the subservience that makes Cecil a success as a butler (“You hear nothing; you see nothing; you only serve,” he’s told early on at the White House) something to be admired or decried? Is Cecil someone, as a character in the film points out, who by virtue of being hardworking and trustworthy defies racial stereotypes and advances his people? No, his powerlessness, ultimately, is something shameful.”
“More keen on name dropping than complex storytelling, “The Butler” fails to get at anything tangible or tell us what we don’t already know. Daniels simply picked up a U.S. history textbook and cast Hollywood’s finest; it’s entertaining, but forgettable.”
7) No white savior character
For the most part, Cecil Gaines life plays out minus a character inserted, like a non-minority reporter, best friend, adopted mom, etc. whose presence takes up half the movie. Some might argue that the presidents and their wives could serve as this trope, but with the limited amount of screen time each president has, this is debatable. In The Help, Skeeter is someone both white readers and moviegoers can identify with her wide eyed approach to learning about how the black maids suffer and endure, even though she’s been brought up to believe segregation is simply a way of life. In the novel, Skeeter never admits whether she believes blacks are equal and integration needs to happen. And though she graduated from Ole Miss, back then, the school was well known for racial intolerance.
How Skeeter became so liberal is never fully addressed in either the book or movie. It’s a question that was asked by a blogger named Macon D, who identified himself as white and said this in 2009: on his site:
“I find it telling that when an interviewer asked Stockett if Skeeter is an autobiographical character, she replied, “Absolutely not. I was never that brave. Frankly, I didn’t even question the situation down there. It was just life, and I figured that’s how the whole world lived. It wasn’t until I was about 30 years old that I started looking back on it.”
Exactly. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with the thoroughly non-racist Skeeter. I’m not surprised that it took moving away from Mississippi, in terms of both distance and time, for Kathryn Stockett to “question the situation down there,” and I’m certainly glad she’s now “questioning” it. Racist thought and behavior on the part of whites during the Jim Crow era was just the norm back then, so seeing the evil in that, let alone thoroughly resisting it, would likely be very difficult while living in the thick of it, and while enjoying the privileges of membership in the white club.
And so, again, it seems implausible that someone like Skeeter, having been born and raised at that time in Mississippi, would be so completely outside of that norm, so different from other white people. And again, it does seem plausible that Stockett (and perhaps her editors) portrayed her that way so that white readers can more readily see themselves in Skeeter. In this sense, and others, this novel is thoroughly white-framed entertainment, designed to appease, rather than challenge, the ostensibly liberal sentiments of white consumers.”
Read more analysis on the character of Skeeter here: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/07/04/is-skeeter-two-faced/
To be continued, because this post is in development . . .