The Upside of The Help Controversy: It Made Us Talk About Race

The Help has been accused of revisionism and racism. But it's also made a young black media activist want to record her grandma's story.

I was shocked when my father called and encouraged me to buy a ticket to The Help on opening weekend. “Go see this. It made me think about your grandma,” he said.

My dad was the one who introduced me to Amiri Baraka and Malcolm X, Nina Simone and Gil Scott Heron. He and my mother were the ones who told me when I was five years old what it was like growing up black in the South. They shared stories about seeing Klansmen in white sheets at the grocery store and crosses burned in lawns, being kicked in the stomach by angry white men while sitting at lunch counters and being hosed down and chased by dogs. My father explained race using the same strategy he did when I asked him if Santa Claus was real. Instead of prolonging my naïveté, he told me the truth, explained the history, and urged me to question everything.

So why was he encouraging me to see The Help, a movie I had heard was historically inaccurate at best, eerily racist at worst?

The film tells a story about the relationships between black maids and the white families they serve through the eyes of a rich, young, white, female writer named Skeeter Phelan. Since its release two weeks ago, I’ve been suspicious of The Help as a woman of color, a media activist, and feminist organizer. I was suspicious when Kathryn Stockett’s book, upon which the movie is based, was topping the bestseller lists, too.

I had my doubts about Stockett's ability to capture the complexities of the racist and sexist systems Southern black women navigated in 1960s. Being the granddaughter of a domestic worker who cooked, cleaned, babysat, and ironed for white families in North Carolina for decades, I had a hard time understanding how a white woman—Stockett or her fictional stand-in, Skeeter—could tell my grandmother’s story.

But my dad seemed relieved that the movie explored some of the real experiences of black domestic workers during Jim Crow, beyond cringe-worthy stock Mammy figures like the ones in Beulah and Gone with the Wind. Dad told me he thought the film was an opportunity to “wake people up and get them to start talking about race more openly.” That was enough to make me buy a ticket.

So I joined a predominately white crowd of East Village moviegoers this week, and I left with mixed emotions. I appreciated the talents of a dynamic cast, but I agreed with critics who accused The Help of glossing over the grisly terrorism that plagued Mississippi during the ‘60s. The movie’s portrayal of racism and the Civil Rights movement pales in comparison to the daily violent realities. I rolled my eyes at the movie’s suggestion that Skeeter rescues “the help” by telling their stories and “giving them voice.” I cringed when Celia empowers her maid, Minnie, to leave her abusive husband by making her fried chicken and telling her to defend herself.

But I confess: I didn’t hate The Help. It has sparked a rare and much-needed public dialogue about race, something very few blockbusters ever do, and has given a platform to a powerful cast of black women actors to showcase their talents, expand their audiences, and possibly snag some Oscar wins.

Dad and I agreed that the most memorable scene in the movie is the heart-wrenching image of a toddler’s face pressed against the window as she watches her best friend and caretaker, Aibileen, walk away after being fired by the child’s mother. My dad told me that scene reminded him of the relationships between his mother and her former employer’s children. He was touched when more than 30 white children and grandchildren of my grandmother’s former employer attended her 89th birthday party—two decades after Grandma’s retirement. These relationships are complex. They’re wrapped up in power, privilege, and very often pain, but we can’t ignore the real bonds that are formed.

The film doesn’t exactly let Skeeter off scot-free, either; the black characters make no bones about her arrogance and naïveté. I love the moment when Minnie grills Skeeter on why she thinks black domestic workers need her to lead a crusade on their behalf. “Why do you think you have all the answers?” Minnie demands. The movie does alleviate the audience’s white guilt by privileging the story of a sympathetic white woman—but it's important that its characters call Skeeter out, too.

Even though their story is in many ways secondary, the friendship between Minnie and Aibileen is a true testament to sisterly bonds. When Skeeter says she fears moving to New York for a new job will jeopardize the black workers in her town, Aibileen and Minnie promise her that they can “take care of each other.” These two women of color don’t need a “white savior,” after all—we know they’ll be fine because of the strength of their friendship and community. Both of the actresses’ performances were stunning, vulnerable and indomitable at the same time. In the end, I went to see The Help to send a message to the film industry: audiences want to see more women of color (and women in general) in powerful, self-possessed roles on screen.

I’ll be glad if someone deciding between Horrible Bosses and The Help chooses the latter. At the very least, it’ll draw attention to a topic that is too often swept under the rug. The Help comes at a time when white people are increasingly paranoid about “reverse racism.” From the classroom to the Supreme Court, more and more white people feel targeted by discrimination. Meanwhile, resentment of President Obama has manifested itself in bigotry too many times. Racially motivated violence still happens in Jackson, Mississippi—automobile worker James C. Anderson was murdered in a hate crime just a couple of weeks ago.

Even the revisionist tendencies of the movie have a silver lining, if only because of the hubbub they’ve created. Scholar Melissa Harris-Perry said that the film is reductive and “so ahistorical as to be inaccurate”—not to a few like-minded people, but to MSNBC’s national audience. Martha Southgate told Entertainment Weekly’s 1.8 million readers that the film “simplifies the horrors of Jim Crow to a truly damaging degree.” The Help got magazines talking about representations of Latina actresses in Hollywood. It got national organizations like The Domestic Worker’s Alliance to start timely campaigns, reminding us that domestic workers still face major barriers.

As I watched the film, I thought about my family’s former housekeepers from the Phillipines, Mexico, and Ethiopia, wondering about their struggles, triumphs, and dreams. I thought about my own power and class privilege. Seeing The Help has made me even more committed to challenging racial disparities in Hollywood. And it has reminded me to keep encouraging people of color to write, produce, and direct films—to keep fighting for our stories to be told through our own eyes, not through others’ fantasies.

Mostly, seeing The Help made me want to hear my own grandma’s experiences. I have a plan for the next time I visit her in North Carolina. I’m bringing my Flip Cam, sitting next to her, listening to her story, and recording it—on my own terms.

"The Upside" finds the silver lining in news stories that otherwise really bum us out. Read more here.

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NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

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