2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
The Help is stuck in the same stereotypes it's supposed to debunk
by Kathryn Fleishman
In the opening sequence of The Help, the camera focuses at eye level on the stoic face of a middle-aged black woman in a kitchen, phlegmatically describing the many trials of her life as a maid in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. The character is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), born in Chicksaw County, the daughter of a maid and the granddaughter of a house slave born on the same plantation. As Aibileen speaks, seemingly right to the audience, our still-unseen protagonist, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) transfers the maid’s thoughts into her own shorthand and onto the blank pages of a notebook with her white hands. And in this initial act of “translation,” through which director Tate Taylor aligns his viewers with the white Skeeter as she interprets black experience in the Jim Crow South, The Help already begins to leave a bad taste in the mouth. [open endnotes in new window]
Aibileen narrates as we get our first glimpse of Skeeter, driving down a dirt road with the radio blasting:
“The young white ladies of Jackson—oh, lord was they havin’ babies. But not Miss Skeeter. No man and no babies.”
Unlike her friends, for whom a job is just the “last stop till marriage,” this newly minted Ole Miss graduate has real dreams. She wants to be “a serious writer.” And when she gets her first job at the local paper writing a cleaning advice column, of course she asks her friend’s maid Aibileen to tell her what to write, since her own maid Constantine has mysteriously “quit,” and naturally Skeeter knows nothing about cleaning. All this is tacitly condoned by the film, which carefully indicates Skeeter as a heroic outsider among her smug, patently racist peers. While the demonic queen bee of the white ladies, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) drafts the Home Health Sanitation Initiative to require separate bathrooms for black servants working in white homes (“They carry different diseases than we do,” Hilly sneers), Skeeter is morally set apart. She thanks the maids when they pour her iced tea and even knows the name of the black man who works at the local soda fountain! And so begins a modern-day racial melodrama.
The Help, which Taylor adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular 2009 book-club phenomenon of the same name, grossed $26 million during its opening weekend and remained in theaters across the country for 16 weeks, raking in $169 million at the national box office and $211 million worldwide. It also received a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for acting, the AFI Movie of the Year Award, 3 SAG awards, and an Oscar. Though it did not end up winning Best Picture, critics like Ben Child at The Guardian considered it The Artist's main contender for that honor at this year’s Academy Awards. The city of Jackson’s tourism website is advertising “The Help Tours” these days. And on the popular website Rotten Tomatoes, the film enjoys an approval rating of 76% among critics and 91% among audiences (an impressive statistic considering those of such recent Oscar winners as There Will Be Blood [91%; 84%]and Black Swan [88%; 86%]. On IMDb, The Help has an audience ranking of 8/10 while The Artist’s is 8.2/10). So what’s the issue that critics have only sort of picked up on, and which audiences hardly seem to notice at all? Why do we generally like The Help?
Detroit News’ Tom Long praises the film as
“[r]ich in emotion, rich in history, rich in humor…rich in prejudice, pain and terrible truth, even as it’s rich in compassion and courage…an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days.”
Certainly, the film affects the kind of distancing, even progressive, historical irony we’ve encountered in so many recent popular meditations on early 1960s United States (think Mad Men and its cohorts), creations that try to re-engage cultural sincerity as they mediate a relationship with our fairly-recent past. The Help indicates these moments by familiar means: “I guarantee someday they’re gon’ find out cigarettes’ll kill you,” Skeeter’s boss says, and her own benighted mother makes references to a “cure” for girls who are “havin’ unnatural thoughts about girls or women.” The problem in The Help, though, is that its ironicizing gestures are clumsy and overcompensating, even racist themselves—“old-fashioned,” but not in the positive way Long wants to claim. Far from purposive dramatic irony, such flippant slippages of meaning only contribute to the troubling gap between intention and execution in the film's attempt to redress history. (Who can trust the effective use of irony, anyway, in a film where the young “writer” Skeeter sloppily misuses the word? “We love them and they love us, but they can’t even use the toilets in our houses. Don’t you find that ironic?” she asks.) The Help fails to challenge us now, instead creating an easy, rather than troubling, space, in which we can laugh at the “pastness” of our past, especially its prejudices.
Manohla Dargis observes in The New York Times,
“Like the novel, the movie is about ironing out differences and letting go of the past and anger.”
The facility of The Help indeed lies in this ironing out—or even ironizing out. It is a comforting racial melodrama in the grand tradition, which falls back on a wise, romanticized group of “Mammy” figures to continually reassert our current knowingness about just how bad racism was—and certainly isn’t now. Along with Aiby, whose tragic past haunts her, it is Skeeter’s childhood maid Constantine, fired after 23 years of service, who is sacrificed on the altar of the melodrama. Constantine, as we see in hazy porch-side flashbacks, has “raised” Skeeter alongside her own daughter. But when Skeeter finds out that her own mother fired Constantine to save face at a home luncheon in front of the visiting Daughters of America, we are treated to a hold shot on her young, white, trembling face as she cries, “You broke her heart!” As if to suggest that melodramatic expressivity could absorb the guilt of this “murder,” Skeeter’s mother covers her own mouth and moans, “I’m sorrrryyyy!”
In Constantine’s death, as well as references to murders, physicalized sicknesses, and beatings of black characters, we get over and again in The Help the “spectacle of racialized bodily suffering” that critic Linda Williams locates as a key release point in U.S. racial melodrama. The Help also seeks to comfort us in our present by grafting itself consciously to history. It incorporates actual TV coverage of Medgar Evers’ speeches and murder, a real LIFE magazine cover, images of Jim Crow signs reminiscent of Eudora Welty’s photos of Jackson in the 1930s, and an early shot of a ‘Colored’ back-stair entrance to a movie theater which uncannily restages a famous Marion Post Wolcott snapshot from Belzoni, Mississippi in 1939. By putting Aiby in the dark, confused streets of Jackson amongst other vague, black, running figures on the night of Evars’ death, too, The Help presumes its own seamless suture with history and makes its own historicizing claim about the “pastness” of racism that is all the more disturbing because it purports to be so “real.”
Discomfort with The Help seems to seep through the language of a number of critics, only to be reflexively corrected. Tom Long, the critic who loved The Help’s “richness,” admits that it “does rely on stock characters—the wise underclass; the country bumpkin; the pure racist and the social climber,” but this is all fine because “in Mississippi, the epicenter of American racism in 1963, such characters likely existed.”
Dana Stevens, writing in Slate, complains that The Help lies within a “tradition of feel-good fables about black-white relations in America… in which institutional racism takes a backseat to the personal enlightenment of one white character,” yet she ends by conceding that “[t]he story simplifies and reduces the civil rights movement, yes, but at least it's about it.”
David Denby of the The New Yorker includes at least one substantial critique of the film and its source material in his piece “Maids of Honor”: “the insistence of the novelist Kathryn Stockett… to place, in effect, a version of herself in a heroic and dangerous period, doing there what she actually did in a time of safety.” Still, for Denby, The Help is, overall, “a good, fresh, morally complicated story, lusciously photographed, with many touching moments,” and, as he concludes, “parts of it are so moving and well acted that any objections to what’s second-rate seem to matter less as the movie goes on.”
What all this seems to say is that we do know better, but we wish we didn’t. If we did, we would have to confront contemporary race problems in the United States. Instead, The Help delivers us a lushly costumed and well-acted version of our “history” as a kind of cathexis point for any enduring discomfort surrounding race, which we can then erase from our moral present. Sigfried Kracauer, writing in the 1920s, scathingly critiqued these kinds of films, which he said were made for “little shopgirls,” that sought to turn a profit by introducing major social issues, but ultimately reinforcing a bourgeois sense of comfort with the “way things are.” He writes that “[f]ilms are the mirror of the prevailing society… they hint at subversive points of view without exploring them” and “reaffirm the ruling system,” so that “the more incorrectly [films] present the surface of things, the more correct they become and the more clearly they mirror the secret mechanism of society.”
Kracauer’s tone, which deliberately maligns the intellects of the women he describes, nevertheless hits upon a formulaic set of production values much like the whitewashing, superficial liberalism of The Help. Rather than trouble its audience, The Help simply reinforces what we’d like to believe—the dominant ideology of our own progressiveness—even as it conceals evidence of itself as a fiction through its false sutures to “history.” As a result, the film feels a little like Skeeter’s mother gazing at her black maid Constantine through a screen door after firing her, knowing what she’s doing is wrong and shutting the door in the face of this knowledge anyway.
Kracauer snarkily paints the swaths of sentimental films released in the early twentieth century with a wide brush, calling them expressions of a society “full of pity” that
“wants to express its emotional excess so as to soothe its conscience… The little shopgirls gain unexpected insights into the misery of mankind and the goodness from above.”
This description seems to fit The Help like a crisp white debutante glove, not only because it describes the script’s myopic white protagonists, but because the film itself seems to believe quite sincerely in its own anti-racism. Among its distancing ironies is a scene at a charity auction, at which Hilly thanks “the help” and claims that the “Starving African Children” cause is one she “is sure is dear to their hearts as well.” While this plays “knowingly” with whites conflating Africans and African-Americans in the “past,” The Help actually reinforces a number of racist stereotypes, too. Among these is criminality—at the film’s close, the only black readers of Skeeter’s text are the crudely tough inmates of a women’s prison, who read the most profane sentences of the book aloud and dissolve in peals of laughter.
The film presents, too, an almost conspiratorially close “black community,” in which “they all know each other.” Aibileen mentions casually, as though it were a foregone conclusion, that she knew Skeeter’s maid Constantine from her “church circle.” Later, when the maids gather after an incidence of repression to volunteer for interviews with Skeeter, Henry the soda jerk (whom we’ve already seen chatting to Aibileen at the back of the bus) whispers slyly to Skeeter, “You best head on over to Miss Aibileen’s house—now.” Problematically, though, the film undermines this same community by confining its depiction of black home life to single mothers in close, shabby, cabin-like interiors, refusing to posit them within a larger, more inter-connective social structure.
One of the more disappointing racialized moments of the film is the double serving of literalized “humble pie” that the plucky Minny (Octavia Spencer) serves to Hilly after getting fired. Though the moment is delivered with impeccable dramatic irony (we know what’s happening just before Hilly does), it’s a shame that the scene becomes the central “joke” of the film, as well as the characters’ security against Hilly in their anonymous publication of the book, because it’s both grotesque and tasteless. Indeed, although it is a “comic” moment, when Minny vaguely alludes to it on the phone with Aibileen, she calls it the “terrible awful” and bursts into tears: “And now I ain’t never gonna get no job again.”
The “terrible awful” with the pie isn’t just “unconvincing,” as Denby would have it—it’s bestializing. When Minny resorts to this scatological revenge, she makes an abject, nonverbal act the “natural”—and only—response to injustice by black characters in the film before Skeeter comes to the rescue. Unlike the many historical protests and sit-ins led by blacks all over the South, Minny’s petty fictional revenge leads nowhere and articulates nothing. Instead, she and the other “Mammies” need Skeeter to lead them in an intelligible protest, translating their inarticulate rage into comprehensible, whitewashed language. As comedians Kenan Thompson and Seth Meyer quipped on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” last October, The Help is
“a film that teaches black women that if you work hard enough and hum loud enough, Emma Stone will come and save you.”
One wonders, in fact, why the maids need Skeeter at all, when Aibileen virtually reads her crafted stories aloud to Skeeter from her prayer journal and claims authorship at the film’s close: “I been told I’m a pretty good writer—already sold a lot of books.” The answer is that we, the audience, are expected to need Skeeter. In the film's opening credits, we first see Aibileen through Skeeter's eyes and watch the film's title written in Skeeter's hand, so that, regardless of race, our experience as viewers is profoundly mediated by a white protagonist. We are safer, the film seems to suggest, because we only identify with black characters via Skeeter, and at a distance, purging our pity about the “past” without admitting the continuing power of racism in this country. Even the film’s soundtrack seems to buttress this. The revolutionary characters (like Skeeter) get Bob Dylan for their heroic acts, while Hilly Holbrook’s breakdown occurs as she is trapped in Chubby Checkers’ cyclical lyrics, expressing her (and not our!) inability to progress with history:
“Twist again, like we did last summer, let’s twist again, like we did last year.”
The film’s moralizing tone strangely perpetuates the very superficial, gossipy behaviors it purports to criticize initially. When Skeeter splits “the worst advance Ms. Stein had ever seen” with the 13 maids and gets her dream job, her mother “reforms.” She sticks up for Skeeter by telling a sweaty and blemished Hilly (whose suffering is signified by her diminishing physical attractiveness and whose infected mouth is evidence of ingesting Minny's pie) to “get her raggedy ass” off the Phelan’s porch “before we all get one of those disgusting things on our lips.” Rather than dispel Hilly's racialized terror that she will be infected if she shares her household toilet with a maid, here the contact between her body and Minny's does leave an infectious trace. With apparently unintentional irony, The Help actualizes the very "ridiculous" fear it intends to satirize. The same ingestive grotesquerie that dishes up tragic irony in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus or keen satire in Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is deployed here in the trivial, bathetic, and blinkered service of humiliating the white villainess through shameful contact with a black female body.
But never fear! Skeeter gets moral permission to go to New York from the noble, unemployed Aibileen and the lucky Minny, who has “a job for life” at Celia Foote’s (a job that has also somehow inspired her to leave her abusive husband). Ultimately, the logic of the film turns in on itself here—as Skeeter moans that she “can’t just leave you two here,” Aiby and Minny insist that “[s]ometimes bad things happen, and ain’t nothin’ you can do about it,” totally contradicting the film’s ostensible message. Anyway, Skeeter needs a husband, and Minny potently reminds us, she
“ain’t never gon’ find another man in this town… [s]o don’t walk your white butt to New York, run it.”
They conclude by imploring her: “Go find your life, Miss Skeeter,” chillingly preserving a hierarchizing structure of nomenclature, as well as representing a tacit acceptance on Aiby and Minny’s part that their lives cannot, and need not, progress.
Although Skeeter leaves behind a community of poor, unemployed black women as well as a series of shattered relationships and a sick mother, we’re reminded again that it’s all okay, because she’s forging the path of the good, white, feminist American career woman. As Kracauer wrote of a much earlier film, it “recovers its rosy-cheeked smile immediately,” sending us off with a happy ending for our white heroine and dispensing with the nagging problems of the racialized victim-heroes:
“The little shopgirls were worried; now they can breathe easy again.”
Unfortunately, though, the distasteful pie at the center of The Help could be a metonym for the whole film—while Taylor and Stockett sell you on what Long calls a “rich slice of history,” you can’t help but feel, in consuming it, that it might be totally full of—well. You know.
2. Kathryn Stockett, The Help (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009).
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7. Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011) xiv.
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