The Help, written by Kathryn Stockett, is based on a true story and is an attempt to bring to light the issue of racism at this point in time. Targeting a primarily white audience, The Help was a box office hit that earned $216 million since its release as well as won many awards. However, this film created much controversy on whether or not it was successful in portraying the reality of racial injustice that occurred in the midst of this time period. Taking place in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, this movie exposes the racism that African American’s faced during this time in history. With the passing of the Jim Crow Laws that enforced racial segregation, The Help illustrates the life of enslaved African Americans while also encouraging the discussion about the intersectionality of racism.
While racism continues to improve throughout the world, it still exists today. Produced in 2011 by Tate Taylor, The Help acts as a precautionary tale that sheds light on the racism found not only during this time in history but also in the issue of racism found in the modern world. During the time of the movie’s release, the world faced some notable events regarding racism such as the publication of the book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. Known as the “secular bible of a new social movement”, this novel speaks about the rebirth of the “caste-like” system in the United States that imprisoned African Americans and banished them to a permanent second-class status. The New Jim Crow tells the truth our nation has been afraid to face. That being said, this also gave way to the establishment of the Black Lives Matter movement that we see so prevalent today. However, there has been a lot of controversy on whether or not this movie accurately portrays the social injustice happening in the 1960s. This “feel-good” movie about black-white relations seems to have missed the mark because of the criticism that this “institutional racism takes a backseat to the personal enlightenment of one white character”. (Stevens, 2011). It focuses more on Skeeter’s “white savior” character and her bravery rather than on the bravery of enslaved and the issues at hand. The movie begins by asking Aibileen Clark, a black maid, “what does it feel like raising a white child when your own child’s at home being looked after by someone else?” This is important because at this point in time, asking a black maid such a thought-provoking question was unheard of and considered groundbreaking for the 1960s. The Help focuses on the relationship between Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an aspiring white journalist who seeks to gain the perspective of two black maids, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson during the time of the newly passed Jim Crow Laws and the peak of racism within society. The three of them create an unlikely bond around a secret novel that Skeeter plans to publish in order to expose the racism they are faced with as enslaved maids of white family households. “From their improbable alliance, a remarkable sisterhood emerges, instilling all of them with the courage to transcend the lines that define them, and the realization that sometimes those lines are made to be crossed-even if it means bringing everyone in town face-to-face with the changing times” (Dreamworks, 2011). Skeeter, the protagonist of the story, is a white socialite surrounded by her antagonist friends, Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt, who make her feel uncomfortable with their racist attitudes towards their black maids. Hilly Holbrook, who is the president of the Junior League, strongly enforces the idea of segregation and punishes all who disagree. She uses her status to control the white women of Jackson, Mississippi, and fights to maintain power using threats and blackmail to get what she wants. After Hilly plans to create a ‘Home Sanitation Initiative’ that installs separate bathrooms for help, Skeeter disapproves and begins to isolate herself by rejecting this “social norm” of racism. Skeeter, who has a close bond with Constantine, the maid who raised her, is emotionally conflicted and is surrounded by this overwhelming problem of racism not only with her friends but within her family as well. When Skeeter finds out that her mother, Charlotte, unfairly fired Constantine while she was off at college, this outrages Skeeter and is ultimately seen as the story’s turning point. She uses this anger to fuel her fire against the growing problem of racial injustice and seeks out Aibileen to help her write a narrative from the point of view of ‘the help’. Aibileen is reluctant to agree as she is scared of the possible repercussions that may come of her speaking out. However, after Medgar Evers, an African American Civil Rights activist gets shot by the Ku Klux Klan, she realizes that she must take a stand and speak her truth no matter the consequences.
As Skeeter meets with Aibileen and listens to her tell her story, she realizes that she must employ other black maids who are willing to do the same. However, no other maid will come forward as they are scared about being possibly found out and killed for their part in this. Eventually, Aibileen gets her friend Minny Jackson, Hilly Hilbrook’s former maid, to agree to share her stories. As this trio continues to flourish, sooner or later, almost all of the maids in Jackson, Mississippi decide to come forward and speak out against the social injustice they face on a day-to-day basis. As the story progresses, Skeeter brings these ideas of racial inequality to life while also working to keep her project a secret. Skeeter sees herself as somewhat of a “social pariah” and compares herself to the book To Kill a Mockingbird’s main character and outcast, Boo Radley. Skeeter jokes that like Boo, “she’ll choose to stay inside to hide from the ugliness of society”. Skeeter can also be seen as a “white savior” which refers to a white person who acts to help non-white people in regard to problems such as social injustice. “A white savior is a common trope used in books, and films, and as a way of interpreting actual history. It’s also a perspective shared by many white people as we move through the world. In the simplest terms, it’s when a white character or person rescues people of color from their oppression. The White Savior is portrayed as the good one, the one that we’re meant to identify with as we watch or read these narratives” (Edell, 2016). This idea of a white savior has become increasingly controversial today because of the idea that these goals could not be achieved without a white person’s help. According to the textbook, “in media culture, white women are often bathed through soft white light that represents them as pure, divine, and angelic “idealized white women are bathed and permeated by light. it streams through them and falls onto them, in short, they flow” (Kellner, 1995). This further emphasizes the idea that white women are portrayed as “angelic” figures who can do no harm. This relates back to the common trope of the “white savior” that Skeeter represents. Furthermore, “it ignores the valid points of view and experiences of people of color. Those ignored experiences create a shallow understanding of our world and have repercussions outside of mainstream film and television. It can lead to unconscious bias, an inaccurate view of other cultures, and racism at every level” (Hellerman, 2019). This idea of a white savior has a negative connotation in the fact that it conveys the idea that people of color were unable to save themselves from such oppression. Throughout the movie, there are many social and cultural topics that are very prevalent in the plot such as the establishment of Jim Crow Laws that enforce segregation as well as the mention of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington which was an important turning point in the 1963 Civil Rights Movement. That being said, along with the portrayal of a “white savior”, another stereotype is seen in The Help which we discussed in class. The stereotype of a “mammy” has been incorporated into American history and media for centuries. A “mammy” is usually depicted as a “grossly overweight, large-breasted woman who is desexualized, maternal, and nonthreatening to White people but who may be aggressive toward men. The mammy archetype lives on, as Black women continue to be put in a position to serve others, particularly Whites, in what Omolade (1994) referred to as ‘‘mummification’’. (Chen, Williams, Hendrickson & Li Chen, 1994). This idea of a mammy has been seen as an offensive and undermining representation of black women. Chapter 12 of the textbook talks about the common trope of the “mammy” and explains the root of this stereotype. “there is for example the familiar slave figure: dependable, loving in a simple child way, – the devoted ‘manny’ with the rolling eyes or the faithful filed-hand or retainer attached and devoted to ‘his’ master…..devoted and childlike the slave is also unreliable, unpredictable and undependable – capable of “turning nasty” or plotting in a treacherous way, secretive, cunning, once his or her master’s back is turned” (Kellner, 1995). It talks about how mammies were perceived as loyal but are capable of betraying their masters as we see Minny do to Hilly Holbrook when she gives her the “chocolate” pie. The book further explains that our deep and unconscious ambivalence pervades such stereotypes. While the film strived to accurately portray the reality of the racial inequality faced during this time in history, it relied heavily on the use of stereotypes to further convey the message.
Although The Help was successful in regards to its commercial success, it sparked some outrage about how it undermined this influential period in history. The film seemed to focus more on the heroic acts of Skeeter, the “white savior”, rather than shining light on the oppressed blacks who were stereotyped as uneducated and implied that without the help of Skeeter, they would have never been able to free themselves from such oppression. “The fact that it is impressed by an oddball, white, feminist figure primarily driven by the emotional attachment she had for her childhood maid not only devalues the history of the civil rights movement but also proposes an uncomfortable proposition that black people wouldn’t have been able to strive for justice if it wasn’t for compassionate white people” (Williams, 2016). In conclusion, while The Help may have done a better job regarding the film’s focal point, the overall premise of the film allowed for one to put themselves into the shoes of those who faced extreme oppression and reiterate the importance of empowerment that comes from speaking out against issues of racial and social injustice.