Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Cultural Studies Response to the Movie, The Help

I finally got a chance to see The Help.  The Newark (DE) Free Library showed in Friday night and Ellen and I went.  Having seen so much criticism by people whom I respect but also having heard positive reviews from a few other people I also respect, I wanted to see for myself what I thought.  [Here’s a thoughtful review that includes a list of other great reviews Critique] As is typical of me, I come down somewhere in the middle.  But this isn’t because I’m being wishy-washy.  I just think that the product, like most popular culture products, can elicit contradictory and even competing interpretations.

At heart, the movie is a film about race that is intended for a largely white, mass audience.  No matter how well intended or potentially progressive a project is, this goal inevitably creates certain well-known problems.  Kathryn Stockett’s book, The Help, on which the movie was based, must have appealed to the film’s producers precisely because it had a white woman at the center with whom a mass audience could identify.  Since the contrasting behavior of the white people was central to the film’s narrative, there had to be so many white people in it that there was little room for black characters.  The two main maids, Aibileen played by Viola Davis and Minny played by Octavia Spencer, had to represent virtually all black women.  The Minny character particularly suffered from this problem; she had to be funny, sassy, lovable, mean, domestically abused, brave, and more.  Only a great actor could carry all that off as well as Spencer. 

We all know that, usually, race movies designed to attract white audiences are to be avoided.  But a movie about black maids: we had to go see it!  Our mothers and grandmothers scrubbed and bowed so we could become black intellectuals.  Someone more poetic than I has to say what those women mean to us.  I can’t resist the desire to proudly proclaim that my mother worked as a maid from time to time, even though that was not her primary identification when I was growing up.  I was lucky to get my first job cleaning a store at 14 because my aunt who was a well-respected domestic worker recommended me.  These women are close to my heart.

I don’t know about my colleagues and friends; but I had mixed emotions as I watched The Help.  There was something so appealing about the way Viola Davis played her part that even people who hated the film wanted her to get best actress awards.  That so many praised her performance made me feel that I wasn’t the only one who had conflicting emotions about the movie.  How could she be so separated from the rest of the movie?  Was there something about the contrast between her role and that of Cecily Tyson’s that has meaning for us?  I know I wanted to hide in a hole when Tyson was on the screen. 

I’ve seen my sister scholars complain that too many realities about black maids’ lives were left out.  Where was the reference to sexual harassment, they demand.  To me, that seems more like a criticism that should be made of a documentary than a feature film.  More troubling is the charge that The Help downplays the dangers and systematic oppressiveness of the Jim Crow South.  I hope my sister scholars will allow me the room to present an alternate view.
By focusing on the relationships between black and white women, the movie is able to show the daily, bitter humiliations that women faced.  In fact, the film is unusual for its emphasis on white women’s racist pasts and the horrors of the domestic sphere.  And, it was very clear that those women were ready to resist Jane Crow wherever and whenever they could.  Those old segregated, rattle-trap buses that delivered women from the ghettoes to the white areas were meant to remind us of Rosa Parks’ heroic deeds.  The shooting of Megar Evers was suppose to indicate how dangerous life was for blacks in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi.  The state was there to enforce white women’s policing of black women’s behavior.  The domestic worker who ended up in jail—whose name, ironically, I can’t seem to find online—represented that story.

While I was writing this post, a South African friend Skyped Ellen and asked if we had seen the The Help.  She and her girlfriend had just been to see it and wanted to know what we thought of it.  This is a woman who grew up with a live-in domestic worker as a mother. The mother’s ‘liberal’ employers were relatively generous but seemed blissfully unaware of the toll that umama’s absence took on her own children.  Our friend cried during the movie; it touched something deep inside her. 

I’m not trying to legitimate my view of the film by presenting an ‘authentic’ response to The Help.  I’m sure the reasons the film touched our friend are as complex as the reasons that make us have conflicting emotions and responses to it.  I mention it because it reminds me of what Stuart Hall teaches us: the meanings of cultural products are never fixed as good or bad or positive or negative.


shopgirl said...

thanks, fran. i have avoided both the book AND the movie-- assuming that 'the help' was gonna make me really angry. now you remind me that 'the help' has the potential to be culturally interesting-- both for its content and for what has been left out. i will see it!


Scott A. Barton said...

also thanks Fran. I have wanted to see the film, but was out of the country during the hulabaloo and mass screenings. I need your free library as an alternative... I can relate to your critique as well as your S.A. sister's reaction. On the other side, I hope that you have soul, body, laughter and wits about you during your break from the academe.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great review - I just watched the film two nights ago on my iPad [which is kind of funny]. I agree with your comments. Its a film and not everything can be included but I do think it tried to reference Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement with snippets of conversations - the fear of living in the times was palatable on the night Megar Evans was killed. There were many other examples of the terror for Black people at that time - the constant knowledge that one word from a white woman could ruin your life or worse get you killed. However it would have been quite easy to have a scene or imply sexual harassment was taking place as one more fear to live with.

Having said that I became somewhat irritated with the young white woman who didnt really seem to understand the huge risk placed on her black research subjects. When she was "disowned" by her community her white privilege allowed her to just move away with little complication. She fussed over the loss of her maid but the question remains why did she not write to her or phone whilst she was away? The whole exercise was about her progression from small town tea hack to big time journalist. A movie for liberal white people to feel good me thinks.

As for Tyson's character - yes that was awful - why she keeps playing these kind of "victim" parts I dont know or maybe Miles Davis has something to do with it?