The Help (2011) has been kicked off the number one slot at the box office. Finally. I thought it would never end. The buzz over The Help has been spreading, having made over $140 million and growing as I type these words. Everyone seems surprised about the success of the film, directed by Tate Taylor and adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel of the same name. Not only am I surprised, but appalled as well. For years, black women couldn’t avoid the image of mammy, the black female servant introduced as Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infamous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). She would appear throughout Hollywood in iconic films such as Gone With The Wind (1939), later to become immortalized in plastic as the face of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. Patricia Turner explains the mammy phenomenon in her book, Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies (1994) as follows: “Like Aunt Jemima and her turn-of-the century literary counterparts, these mammies were happily ensconced in the households of white employers. Implicit in each rendition was the notion that these thick-waisted black women were happy with their lot, honored to spend their days and nights caring for white benefactors.” Although the film purports to give mammy a voice, it is a voice told through a white southern woman who herself, was raised by a “black domestic.” While the film has received some criticism amongst the black community, why, then, has the film not been rejected by the general public? What makes this story so irresistible? I’ll begin by going back to the beginning of the controversy, as Kathyrn Stockett came to prominence over her new bestselling novel.
When Michele Norris from National Public Radio’s (NPR) All Things Considered asked Stockett back in December of 2009 whether her book was either an homage or an apology to the “black domestic” of her childhood, Demetrie, Stockett says that it is absolutely not an apology—because Demetrie didn’t need one. Demetrie, according to Stockett’s childhood memory, was treated “like a queen.” The example she gives of her family’s kindness to Demetrie is that when she was sick, they knew it was their responsibility to take her to the doctor and to pay all of her medical bills. How nice. As an employer, they provided her with health benefits. I had forgotten that the deep red states didn’t see health care as a basic human right. In the same breath, Stockett acknowledges the contradiction. They didn’t allow Demetrie to share the white bathroom, but instead gave her a separate room off the side of the house. Stockett admits that to this day, she still has never entered the room. How silly, she admits, that while superficial items such as bathrooms and utensils remained segregated, more intimate parts of their lives were deeply interwoven—they brought Demetrie into their lives to feed them, to bathe them, to raise their children, and yet they could not bring themselves to share a bathroom with her.
While reading a scene from her own novel, a scene in the voice of Minny, a black maid, Stockett apologizes for not doing the character justice as a white woman appropriating the voice of a black woman from Jackson, Mississipi. In turn, Michele Norris questions: “How did you know when you got it right? When you knew you were writing in an authentic black woman’s voice from the 1960s?” She is speaking in terms of vernacular, but there are many layers to the question. Stockett speaks again of her own black maid, Demetrie, saying that she pictured the conversations she would have with her for inspiration. And yet, she openly admits that she didn’t get it all right. She explains how she had taken liberties in writing the novel, that as a white Southern woman, she had appropriated a black woman’s perspective and how she hadn’t really thought about how that would make people feel.
When Norris directly asks about the anger that many black women have expressed over the novel, she dodges the question. She is happy at least that she has provoked discussion over an issue that has been traditionally neglected, and that, most importantly, people are talking about the issue from both black and white perspectives. Her white family and friends back in Jackson complain that her book lacks an accurate picture of the immense love that the white families shared with their black maids, and yet this criticism is conspicuously absent from the black community of Jackson. In a telling scene, Skeeter Phelan, an aspiring young white writer who records the stories of Jackson’s “black domestics,” confronts her mother about the mysterious disappearance of the woman who raised her, their family maid Constantine. When she discovers that her mother had fired Constantine to appease her mother’s apparently more racist and traditional friends, and that, in turn, Constantine had died soon after, Skeeter’s first response to her mother is, “you broke her heart.” She was a woman who had her own loving family, but who had been working well past retirement age for the white family with whom she had spent most of her life and to whom she probably felt obligated. I doubt that a broken heart would be a realistic emotion at such a moment.
Through the voice of her character Skeeter, Stockett explains, “Everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family…But no one ever asked mammy how she felt about it.” Yet, as always, mammy’s voice comes through the interpretation and appropriation of a white woman. In the end, the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi are punished for talking, but what happens to our white protagonist, Skeeter Phelan? Well, she becomes a hero, writes a bestselling book, gets a job in New York City, and books it out of Jackson.
Flash forward to summer of 2011, as the film version of The Help emerges from the theatres and into our pop cultural consciousness once again. It captured the American audiences for twenty-five days in a row, a record only beaten in recent history by The Sixth Sense (1999). Somehow a film describing the horrors of racism in the Deep South, particularly as told through a white woman’s perspective, perhaps proves more palatable to a general, mostly white audience. The Oscar nominated Viola Davis plays Aibileen Clark, the first of the black domestic servants to agree to tell her story to writer Skeeter Phelan. Octavia Spencer plays Minny Jackson, another black maid who embodies the archetype of the mammy—a round, sassy black woman who is known for her cooking skills and love for fried chicken. Both actors have received criticism for taking on these roles, stereotypes from which many black female actors have fought to break free. For many years, mammy dominated roles for black women and yet, in the year 2011, the most recent box office hit resurrects a tainted racist past in more ways than one.
Viola Davis explains why she took the role of Aibileen Clark in an interview with Allison Keyes on NPR’s Tell Me More. Davis was attracted to the richness of the relationships and the characters in the story, seeing fully explored human beings beyond the white uniforms. She followed their journey, as seemingly ordinary women rising to extraordinary heights. Davis was not about to pass up the opportunity to play such a role, one that she admits, is rare to find as a woman of color. When Keyes asks Davis whether she felt conflicted in accepting it, she admits that it was a hard choice to make. She recognizes that black women have been relegated to the role of the maid, and that the stereotype of such “cements everything that we hate about Hollywood and how we’re portrayed.” Yet, she proffers again that in her character she didn’t see mammy or a maid or even a stereotype—she just saw Aibileen, a woman with something to say, who wanted to tell the world that she was more than just a maid. She adds, "It's not my responsibility as an actress to play the social message. It is my job as an actor to just play the human being."
Ralph Eubanks, author and Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress has mixed feelings about the film. He admits to NPR that he didn’t want to like the film, but that he couldn’t help but relate to the place where he himself had grown up. Yet, the next morning he felt a sense of uneasiness. The glossy, Hollywood perspective of life in the South didn’t settle with him anymore, and he sought a more real story, one that presented the darkness as well as the light. He turned to the Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, a haunting tale of the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, an event that makes a cameo in The Help but yet is not fully explored.
Meanwhile, Ablene Cooper, the black maid of Kathryn Stockett’s brother, has sued Stockett for using her likeness without permission. Both women share striking similarities—sons who died, a gold tooth, and, of course, a name. According to the lawsuit, the author’s conduct “is not a mere insult, indignity, annoyance or trivial matter to Ablene. Kathryn Stockett's conduct has made Ablene feel violated, outraged and revulsed.” Whether Stockett did exploit the likeness of Ablene Cooper or not, the fact remains that because of the resemblance, Cooper must face the judgment of acquaintances and neighbors who cannot clearly see the line between fiction and reality. Nevertheless, the judge recently threw out the case. Stockett had given a copy of the book with a note to Cooper, assuring her that the character was not based on the person. Cooper didn’t read the book until a year later, at which point, the statute of limitations had already passed.
While Davis and Spencer might see the resurrection of mammy as a movement toward redemption, it’s hard to take The Help seriously as told through the voice of a white Southern woman. The story that she has written is sugarcoated and perfect for Hollywood, but unfortunately does not serve as a true representation of history for all parties involved. According to Stockett, the purpose of The Help, both the novel and the film, was to give voice to mammy and to allow her to speak as something other than a stereotype. Viola Davis saw this potential and capitalized on it; Ralph Eubanks could relate; while Ablene Cooper was insulted, along with other members of the blogosphere. Regardless of how you may feel about The Help, Kathryn Stockett and Tate Taylor certainly have provoked a lot of discussion, most of which will hopefully lead to more exploration into forgotten voices, as well as more questions as to what empowerment truly means. Moreover, it allows us to think about the responsibility of storytellers, as well as the power of ownership of ones history. In the meantime, the general public can feel better about themselves for liking The Help.
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