The Help, an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Kathryn Stocket, portrays the life of the black domestic workers of Jackson, Mississippi during the civil rights movement. A young, white female college graduate, Skeeter Phelan, manages to convince Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, both African-American woman working in white homes, to tell their stories of what it means to be “the help.”
The novel, and thus the movie, came under criticism when Ablene Cooper, nanny to Stockett’s brother’s children, filed a lawsuit against Stockett alegging that the character of Aibileen was based directly on her likeness, despite assurances from Stockett before publication that she would refrain from using Ablene as the basis for one of her characters. The lawsuit brings to bear the underlying criticisms of the story itself; just how much can we trust the narrative of a white woman writing from the perspective of a white woman in the 1960s writing in the voice of the black help? And to what extent does this narrative, a decidedly feel-good type of story that garnered the approbation of many a middle-aged book group, water down the seriousness, dangerousness, fear, and violence experienced during the Civil Rights movement?
The Help, in its film adaptation at least, does its best to scrub away all visual violence, briefly acknowledging it, but ultimately shoving it aside in the hopes that its viewers will pay more attention to the hilarity of a pie joke rather than the seriousness of the danger that African-Americans lived in on a daily basis. Violence becomes only a threat. Aibileen, initially hesitant to work with Skeeter, says that Skeeter doesn’t understand the danger she’d get them into. That danger is never named, and we never actually see any harm coming to African-Americans from a white hand. The movie briefly mentions the Medger Evers murder, but only tangentially, showing Aibileen being kicked off a bus and forced to walk home while we see cop cars in the distance. The only harm that comes to her from the incident are the scrapes on her knees that she suffers while running home after hearing sirens nearby.
Sound really becomes the key element of violence that is allowed some screen time. We hear the sirens, listen to the news reports of demonstrations (before they are quickly silenced by Skeeter’s mother), and hear the discussions about the impending violence. Somewhat ironically, the only character to come to any real harm, Minny, is abused not by anti-civil rights whites, but by her own husband. And again, we are only given the aural account; Aibileen just happens to be on the phone with Minny when her abusive husband comes home after hearing that Minny has been fired and proceeds to beat her. But rather than render any aid, Aibileen listens for a moment, hears blows and screams, and quickly hangs up the telephone. Aibileen’s inaction is startling, and the fact that it is Minny’s white boss, not her best friend, who eventually convinces her to leave her husband further denigrates the strength, and the horrors experienced by, the African-American population.
The lack of viewable violence may also be attributable to the films near lack of men. As one reviewer of the film put it, “Men dominated the political sphere, and women dominated at home. Men are nearly nonexistent in The Help, either ineffective nonentities or violent brutes.” In some ways this omission of portrayals of women from the violence which many of them experienced could be seen as sexist, if not just inaccurate. But, in the spirit of giving the movie the benefit of the doubt, I would propose that the filmmakers chose to highlight another aspect of violence, one that can be just as hurtful if not as deadly, and that is in the threatened aggressions of the white women towards their help.
Do these threats really count as violence? Does the spoken word rise to the level of the raised fist? In considering what would have been at stake for these women domestics, the answer is a resounding yes. As we see in the case of Minny, a bad word from a determined former employer can leave you unable to find a job and subject to the beating of your husband. Even without the abusive husband, a statement that was never spoken on-screen, “Don’t hire Minny, she stole from me,” could render her unable to provide for herself or her family. That is surely violence. When Yule Mae Davis is caught in her having stolen a ring from her employer, we see her beaten by police, the one moment that a woman is actually shown on the receiving end of white violence, and thrown in prison, all because of her employer’s decision to report her, a decision driven by the unwillingness of the employer, Hilly Holbrook, to give Yule Mae a loan so she can send her boys to college.
In the domestic, and female, world, the violence of civil rights came through speech, not necessarily in the form of instantaneous physical abuse, but the threat of it at the hands of others. The feel-good power of the movie then comes in the ability of some of these women domestics to reverse that power, to threaten white women with reputational harm. Minny does this through her tricking Hilly Holbrook to “eat [her] shit” in the form of a chocolate pie, and in the final scene, Aibilene exerts a similar power through threatening to reveal that the stories of the book come from the Jackson homes of these white women. The scene is a powerful one:
The problem with equating these powers, threats of imprisonment or unemployment with that of repuational harm, is that the harms are totally unequal. Yes, the white womens’ social standing would take a hit, which may eventually effect their husbands’ careers through the same reputational blow-back, these women are already in a social class where they are taken care of. They are not breadwinners, and the soiling of their reputation would never leave mouths unfed. In contrast, the help could easily go to prison. The movie wants us to believe that the African-American women won out in the end, but just as Aibilene leaves having said her piece, but ultimately without a job, so is the power that the movie grants these women limited in nature. Through that final depiction, the movie somewhat redeems itself from being viewed as a scrubbed narrative, instead we see the inequity of power, even when the verbal playing fields have been leveled. Yes, we wanted to watch the movie and see some justice done, but sadly, as history demonstrated, a lot more harm was done before any of that equality was realized.
How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date) http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/