The Controversy Over The Help

by Melissa Silverstein
August 15, 2011 4:01 AM
18 Comments
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The Help has stirred up many emotions since it opened on Wednesday. But that hasn't prevented the film from becoming a hit. It grossed over $35 million since it opened and already made back its budget of $25 million. While I'm sure that Participant and Dreamworks would rather not have the controversy, they are sure happy with these opening numbers.

It's got great critical response with 73% fresh at rotten tomatoes and is getting A+ Cinemascore ratings (which is a poll of people who are exiting the theatre.) Other numbers include: 60% of the audience was over 35, and 74% of the audience was female.

African American women in particular are reacting very negatively to the film. The problem for many people stems from the fact that Kathryn Stockett got things wrong in her historical depiction of these women and by getting things wrong in a book and now film that has such wide exposure it continues to distorts the reality of what truly went on.

One of the biggest criticisms has been from the Association of Black Women Historians. They released a statement last week.

Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.

AND

We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.

Read their full statement here.

One of the conversations I had last week was focused on what reaction I would have to a fictional Holocaust film that got the history wrong. What the woman was saying to me, was that a Jew, my reaction to a Holocaust film carries a different weight than a non Jewish person. And her reaction to The Help as an African American woman carries a different weight than my reaction as a white woman. While we might have had different reactions to the film, we had a great conversation about race and women and movies and for that I am grateful.

Here are some more differing opinions:
'The Help' - two views of a controversial film (The Charlotte News Observer)

Why Hollywood keeps whitewashing the past (Salon)

Melissa Harris Perry Breaks Down The Help: ‘Ahistorical And Deeply Troubling’ (Mediaite)

Is 'The Help' a condescending movie for white liberals? Actually, the real condescension is calling it that (EW)

Weekend Report: 'Apes' Cling to Top Spot, 'Help' Cleans Up (Box Office Mojo)

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18 Comments

  • Don | February 20, 2012 3:50 PMReply

    Bitch bitch bitch. Clint Eastwood catches it for directing a film about a great Black musician (Bird) because he is not "entitled" to tell the story. Now Kathryn Stockett is catching it for writing a book (turned into a film) about Black servants because she is not "entitled to tell the story. That is the real issue. If "Push" (turned into the film Precious) had been written by a
    white woman we would hear the same bitching, but because the black woman was "entitled" we do not. Also, as to "The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers". Puhleeze! I saw experiences not distorted but accurately told (servants not allowed to use the bathroom for example), experiences noticed rather than ignored (the movie was made wasn't it), and characters dignified instead of trivialized. The Association of Black Women Historians is really angry because one of their own did not write this story. Take a lesson from Tyler Perry and don't rely on someone else to tell your story, tell it yourself.
    AND STOP BITCHING.

  • Brandon | January 30, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    It is a movie...a really good movie. It tells the story from a point of view; it may not be the one the The Association of Black Women Historians would tell, but they can make their own movie to tell things from their point of view if they want. I wish we as Blacks would stop holding on to oppression and whatnot. If you want a change, don't try and change the movie industry...change the Black youth to be more and achieve more. Entertainment will always be about money, but the history of a culture is best captured in the progress we make today and tomorrow.

  • Patricia | January 27, 2012 12:33 PMReply

    I saw the film and read the book, which, in fact, is a FICTIONAL book and movie, oddly enough. It sounds to me like you are confusing a well told story with a historical text book.

    Also, if you see the behind the scenes features of this movie you will find exactly how accurate Kathryn Stockets potrayal of Jackson, Mississippi really is. Ofcourse, this is all in her point of view, because she was writing a twist on her childhood, living with a single mom and the hired help. So was the director of this film. How would you feel if someone told you your life experiences were invalid just because you personally found them historically inaccurate?

    This movie was was amazing. This time period in which the film/book is based on is something that none of us really talk about as a society, and this film brought clarity to the fact of how brutal/twisted it was to be either black or white.

    I dont understand how someone could say that this movie is " a coming of age story of a white protagonist, that uses MYTHS about black women to make sense of her own life". This is a negatively twisted opinion that doesnt relate to the film. I remember Skeeter asking to INTERVIEW Abeline to get her perspective from the help.

    It's ridiculous that you are jumping to such large assumptions without the proper facts to back up your claims. Kathryn Stocket and the director of this film also interviewed numerous women who were mades back then (as well as their own that brought them up as children) . It's not like they got those representations of black life wrong. They did their research.

    If anyone who went to that movie thinking it would be historically accurate as I'm guessing you were expecting, they should have just picked up a History Channel Documentary about the subject.

  • Clover | January 16, 2012 1:01 AMReply

    I saw the film after reading the book. The issue lies in the book. You can't mention historical figures like Medgar Evers in a a work of fiction and get the dates wrong. The book is a good read I did enjoy it, but there were errors in terms of historical accuracy. The story is a coming of age story not a story meant to document racism. The problem is that it's been marketed as something it isnt for financial gain.

  • Mike | January 4, 2012 11:35 PMReply

    Slavery still lives in the form of wage slavery and black imprisonment...

  • Layana | December 2, 2011 1:11 AMReply

    i completely enjoyed the movie and i am black. its like people are always trying to find something wrong with anything. slavery is over and even though racism is still around, we shouldnt make an issue out of everything. it is very saddening that people still live in the past and are not willing to move on. it is a freakin movie!!!! my race is way too sensitive and it is really starting to get on my nerves.

  • Marie | October 20, 2011 6:03 AMReply

    It obvious that the movie was not made to be historically accurate. No one involved so much as hinted that it was. I can see how someone living through that era may be upset that things are glossed over... but getting upset about it wont change that. its not worth being mad about. You dont like it? Dont watch it again. You feel it should have been more accurate? Write your own book and/or screen play and do it better. Stop whining.

  • Shaun | August 24, 2011 8:58 AMReply

    GET OVER IT!!!!!! This is a FICTIONAL story depicting the working life of A CHARACTER and SOME of the women around her. Is it because the book was written by a white woman and the movie produced by a white man. Why does it have to be a racial thing. If this movie touched on every point that these people feels is wrong with it, it would be too long to sit in a movie theater to watch. The movie was entertaining. It made me cry and laugh. Who are the Association of Black Women Historians and why won't they make an HISTORIC movie/documentary about black domestic workers.

    "Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism." HELLO!!!......again this is a FICTIONAL story of A CHARACTER. Not every domestic worker was sexually harassed. Men played small parts in this FICTIONAL movie. Unless there is talk about using this movie to teach black history, sit back, relax and enjoy it.

  • Chris | August 22, 2011 2:12 AMReply

    You take a movie from Hollywood that is supposed to make people laugh and twist it to make it racial. Come on people...and we wonder what is wrong in America today. racism will never die because people won't let it. they can't get past color and what happened in the past. Why don't we try to live for the future and get over it already.

  • Carol | August 17, 2011 12:32 PMReply

    I love all these actresses, but I wouldn't see this movie at gunpoint. I think the real question is why are americans so uncomfortable with the truth about what happened during slavery and jim crow? There are plenty of slave narratives and I think it would be fascinating to hear their point of view. It is essentially a story of white entitlement and black oppression. It's also a story that could represent many other forms of opression. A teacher once told me slavery had nothing to do with being black, America just wanted free workers, that's how you build wealth..

    I'll never forget visiting an old plantation down south and seeing the beautiful mansion that the family lived in, filled with laced curtains and furniture imported from Europe. The lovely dining room where the family had their meals. Meanwhile, back at the slave quarters, wooden shacks with gaping holes a few threadbare pieces of furniture and that was it. The slave owners had a really nice life based on someone elses labour. Why would they want to give it up.

    Things have changed, but they haven't changed that much. There is now a small african american upper class and middle class. But wealth is generational and if you've spent any time in the ghetto, you know the situation is desperate. At least the white slave owners used to see their slaves on a daily basis. The rich don't see the poor( of any color) anymore. These movies are a product of bad conscience, because american isn't ready to face the truth or acknowledge responsibility.

  • Julie | August 17, 2011 2:03 AMReply

    I do remember while watching The Help; I kept waiting for them to show the actual horrors that maids had to experienced based on stuff I'd read in history books.

    Yeah, they gloss over a lot of the history in the film.

    Racism sucks.

  • Bee | August 16, 2011 12:17 PMReply

    To add to the ways in which this film is problematic, can anybody add to/source the following chunk of yuck from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1454029/trivia ?:
    "Director Tate Taylor kept a calendar of the actresses' menstruation periods so he would know who would be hormonal."

  • Bee | August 16, 2011 2:05 AMReply

    found it:

    http://www.kspr.com/weather/redeye-qa-octavia-spencer-tate-taylor-of-the-help-20110804,0,1707288.story

    "Interviewer: Emma said you kept a calendar of everyone’s hormonal states?
    TT: Oh, yeah. Yeah, varying menstrual cycles and 110-degree weather in Mississippi could have been a time bomb, but it was not.

    ...
    And obviously there’s a special calendar that you can buy to keep it all organized.
    OS: No, he can just tell, because if I give him a look—
    TT: The calendar’s her face."

  • jbyrd130 | August 15, 2011 10:44 AMReply

    lol @ Lauren... you don't remember any controversy over "The Blind Side"?! Ummmm maybe it's because you're [fill in the blank]

  • Lauren | August 15, 2011 7:38 AMReply

    Yet Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for The Blind Side, another movie that has a white female protagonist helping out an African American, and I don't remember there being any "controversy" surrounding that film. Was it because it was set in modern day?

  • TheOreoExperience | August 15, 2011 5:43 AMReply

    I was very disappointed in the book, the film and the trend that both perpetuate. I find it impossible that Hwood cannot tell a story about people of color helping themselves in a well-to-do sort of way. It's not that I think this movie is bad per se, just the fact that this is what we see over and over and over again.

  • Angie | August 15, 2011 5:24 AMReply

    And, just to balance out Gleiberman's piece, here's a great piece from EW by the novelist Martha Southgate: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20516492,00.htm. It has one of my favorite quotes of all time, a line I think producers, filmmakers, and critical audiences should take to heart when thinking about movies like, say, The Help or Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of the Mississippi and The Long Walk Home:

    "Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help. "

  • Angie | August 15, 2011 5:19 AMReply

    Owen Gleiberman's piece in EW made me so angry I wanted to pull my hair out. Talk about not recognizing his own place of privilege. He should read Matt Zoller Sietz's piece about five times and question where he's coming from. Even the title rubs me the wrong way. Do you notice racism? Then I guess YOU'RE the racist, because as a white man, I don's SEE color! How nice for you!

    My favorite review so far has been Valerie Boyd's The Help: A Feel Good Movie For White People, which calls out a lot of the inherent falsehoods in the movie and manages to be a fair, comprehensive review of the film itself http://www.artscriticatl.com/2011/08/film-review-the-help-a-feel-good-movie-for-white-people/

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