After reading the book a few weeks ago, I looked forward to seeing the movie ‘The Help’ on opening day last week. I reviewed the movie for Christianity Today and decided to continue dialog about the book, movie, and racial reconciliation with Nicole Unice.
Also consider the comments of Nicole’s friends here.
Nicole to Natasha: Is “The Help” offensive to black women? And is the idea of working as “help” offensive?
Let me start off by saying that I am by no means speaking on behalf of all black women. I am a black woman who was loved and raised in South Carolina by my mother, who was also a black woman (born at the end of 1946 and grew up in the midst of the racial injustices addressed in the book), her sisters, my father’s sisters, and my grandmothers who were all Black women; you get my drift. So I will share from my personal experiences growing up in South Carolina in a public school system that was approximately 98% African-American and then having an undergraduate college experience where approximately 85% of the population was white.
With all of that being said, I do not believe that The Help in and of itself is offensive to black women. What you may find which was articulated well in an article by the Relationships Editor of Essence magazine for black women is the weariness of reading another book or going to see yet another movie where African-American women play the role of maids particularly because the novel was written by a young white woman. In the same manner, the idea of working as “help” is not in and of itself offensive; it was an honest (and sometimes the only) means of earning an income and contribute to their families.
So I say the concern and issue today is one of imaging, especially when so many Americans still live segregated lives. Of all of the fascinating careers where African-American women thrive in 2011, we are presented with another story of African American women who are oppressed and need saving from a young, inexperienced white girl who obviously has more to offer. For people who are actively engaged in intimate relationships with those of opposite races, this may not be much of a problem. On the other hand, this can be a major problem for those who do not fall into that category because subconsciously the mind is being trained that “this” is how “those” people are, hence continuing the racial divide. I’m thinking now of Aibileen’s (the lead Black maid) sentiment and concern for the white child that she was lovingly raising. She said, “I want to stop that moment from coming—and it come in ever white child’s life—when they start to think that colored folks ain’t as good as whites (pg 96).”
Natasha to Nicole: So have you thought about the issue of “imaging,” particularly how this story portrays African-American women and what it means to present it as a form of entertainment today?
I am so conflicted about answering this question! Because I thought the way the movie was written, it made me really like the black women. I didn’t like most of the white women! But that might reveal my inherent bias, my inability to see that some of the ways the black culture was portrayed are inaccurate.
The “Association of Black Women Historians” released a review critical of the movie, citing its inaccurate portrayal of the language (you is smart…you is important…) and the use of the word “law” for “Lord.” It also lambasted the portrayal of black men as drunk (which I don’t remember from the movie), abusive or absent. (the whole article is well worth reading).
And although I appreciate the reality that the movie can perpetuate black stereotypes, I would argue that if we are going to talk about stereotypes, how about the white ones?
The white men are represented as weak and passive, such as when Hilly’s husband gets up and refuses to be part of the conversation when Hilly’s maid, Yule May, asks for a loan. Skeeter’s love interest leaves because he can’t support her position on race. Skeeter’s father doesn’t stand up to his wife’s way of dealing with Skeeter’s questions about Constantine.
Southern women are represented as conniving, petty and manipulative, southern white men passive and more than happy to let their women deal with “the help.” Perhaps this is a completely accurate descriptor of white Mississippi in the sixties. But I can’t help but wonder if the same argument about black stereotypes also exists for white.
As for this type of movie as entertainment, I believe we have to look at the larger perspective of media and its use in shaping culture. Was Schindler’s List entertainment? Passion of the Christ? Black Hawk Down? Avatar? I think all good movies are designed to not only captivate our imagination but also get us thinking. And for that reason, I think The Help accomplished that.
The Help certainly made me think. It made me think about my responsibility as a woman, a white woman, a white woman living in the south, to be part of breaking down stereotypes such as those portrayed in the movie. After the movie, my friends and I had a conversation about our own relationships. We all agreed that we wished our lives were enriched by friendships with women of other races, but didn’t exactly know how to pursue them. Which raised an interesting question: (Stay tuned…discussion to be continued on Thursday.)
Reflection: In his book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch defines culture and the only adequate response to it. Culture is simply what we make of this world—our perceptions, stereotypes, images, the reality that we create, etc. “The only way to change culture is to create more of it (pg 67).” Therefore, we owe it to ourselves and each other to share more honest depictions of God’s image bearers.
As a woman, what (if anything) do you feel is your responsibility to breakdown racial stereotypes? How can we change the American culture, where racial divisions are still prevalent?
© Natasha S. Robinson & Nicole Unice 2011