How to read the critical response to The Help
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
In last week’s issue of Cincinnati’s CityBeat (August 10 – 16, 2011), I gave The Help a D and referred to having “intimate connections to the subject” that influenced my objectivity. It seems many others, both critics and regular moviegoers brought their own baggage with them into theaters this past weekend. The film, based on the bestselling novel by Mississippi native Kathryn Stockett, cleaned up at the box office with over $25 million in ticket sales during the three-day weekend and more than $35 million since its Wednesday opening.
It is not surprising that the box office tally stands in stark contrast to the heated debate the film has sparked. Indeed, at a time when criticism is seemingly on the decade, especially in light of the decline in print coverage of the arts and the rise of social media and citizen commentary, The Help has the chattering class abuzz. What is it about this beloved title that has raised the hackles of so many, including this critic?
The Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) issued An Open Statement to the Fans of ‘The Help,’ which points out that “despite efforts marketing 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.” They were “specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.” Labor statistics from the 1960s show that “up to 90 percent of working black women in the South” were domestics in white homes.
In fact, Stockett has gone on record stating that her aim through this fictional work was to give voice to the domestic who raised her and from a literary perspective. I see nothing wrong with Stockett, as a writer, tackling the subject matter or the far trickier aspect of using African American dialect. She is an author and this is her story, not a factual or historical document and the film, directed by Tate Taylor, a friend of Stockett’s, deserves the same leeway, up to a point.
The first bone of contention arises over the question of historical accuracy in fiction and how the audience should react to it. I would argue that if readers or viewers know that a particular work, based during a historic period, is fiction, then it is up to them to use the work as a possible entry point for further examination into said period. Use the current resources available to explore other facets of the time, significant figures etc. The sad reality is that we don’t engage in this level of follow-up; we accept what is presented as fact, as a true doument of that moment because it is readily accessible.
Here, that means The Help becomes the account of black domestics in Jackson, Miss. and in order to tell their story, they needed a white agent of change to pull the trigger that sparked this “revolution.” This, of course, is not the “truth” of that moment or the broader civil rights movement. Hollywood, when it dares to address the complex history of the civil rights era, rarely presents stories from the perspectives of black agents of change, leaving audiences with the sense that black people were not active leaders during their own struggle.
I offer this argument, not to belittle the efforts of members of any other race that took part in the marches, sit-ins, standoffs on the steps of southern colleges and universities or any other front of the movement. Rather, I am imploring readers and viewers to seek alternative narratives, ones that, even if they happen to be fictional, are rooted in historic or a more universal truth of that time. That is what, as a critic, I seek from film and sometimes that “truth” is unpleasant or uncomfortable. Uncomfortable like the realities of black domestics from the 1960s, the realities faced by my grandmother and her mother, women who worked those jobs because there was nothing else for them to do and who did not need a revisionist white savior to speak for them.
The Help has certainly proven to be highly entertaining for audiences. I would just hope that as more people head out to the multiplex to catch it, they realize that it is nothing more than entertainment.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.