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Is ‘The Help’ doing more damage than good in the fight for racial equality?

The Help is a film that has been held in high acclaim by critics and audiences alike since its release in 2011. The film’s portrayal of racial relations in 1960s Mississippi is tinged with moments of profound sadness as well as lighter comedic relief, giving voice to previously sidelined individuals and gaining it a reputation of widespread critical acclaim. Since its release, this relatively small budget project has been inundated by nominations and subsequent awards that now include Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs. However, as Octavia Spencer took home her first Academy Award and the positivity continued to grow, criticism began to form around the film’s representation of black life in the civil rights era. With organisations such as the Association of Black Women Historians claiming the film was a damaging continuation of stereotypes surrounding the black community, the question of whether The Help does more damage than good in its representation of racial struggles has become profoundly important.

 

The film centers on the lives of ‘mammys’ in Jackson, Mississippi, in a time when the civil rights movement was becoming a prominent part of everyday life. The Help was unique in its choice to focus on the struggles faces by these maids because up to its release no large-scale film had ever been made in which their perspectives were the primary focus.

Throughout the twentieth century ‘mammy’ figures were present within many films focusing on Southern American states such as Gone with the Wind, but were only small parts and have been deeply criticized from modern perspectives for creating damaging stereotypes surrounding black characters. The Association of Black Women Historians condemned The Help’s representation of mammy figures by saying that it in numerous ways perpetuated these damaging stereotypes.

For example, the choice of casting of Viola Davies and Octavia Spencer, and the way their characters are written within the film in many ways fits the reoccurring idea of mammy figures being overweight and seemingly ‘asexual’ (due to the lack of male presence). There has also been criticism of the way the film addresses serious issues such as violence towards racial minorities as well as sexual and domestic abuse towards ‘mammy’ figures. Though the violence Minny faces from her husband is often alluded to, the tone of the film means that it is never directly shown on screen. Similarly the violent death of Medgar Evers, which is represented using real footage from the incident to provide legitimacy around the event, is still distanced in being shown on a radio or TV, which can subsequently be switched off.

 

These issues bring us onto the choice of tone for the film. The previously mentioned distancing of the more brutal elements of life for people of colour was a decision most likely made to maintain the tone of the film as a more lighthearted story which also addresses more serious issues. The Help invites audiences to look back on the past with disgust, and convert the discomfort it creates into ridicule of such a flawed society.

The choice of the tone for The Help could be criticized because of the seriousness of the topic it focuses on. Instead though what should be taken into account is the sheer size of the audience it managed to reach. Films are, at the end of the day, made to be enjoyed and understood. Put simply, more people will go and see a film they will enjoy than one that makes them uncomfortable, no matter how important the message may be. The brightly packaged bordering upon comedic tone of The Help allowed it to reach far more people than perhaps it would have if it had taken a more serious approach. Therefore though the film may receive criticism for its lack of directly addressing violence and abuse, this sacrifice may have allowed its message to reach far more people in the long term.

 

Having been based upon a novel written by a ‘help-raised’ author, there were concerns that The Help may contain elements of nostalgia, purposeful or not, for this now dated system. The white women involved in the story often seem helpless without the help of the maids, with Cecelia being hopeless in her position as a housewife before Minnie provides her help. Similarly the white children are often neglected by their parents and receive care from the ‘help’ that their own family fails to give them. The film invites us to be shocked by how ridiculous society was, but also has some more concerning nostalgic tones. It seems that by showing white women as ridiculous and flawed, the need for the help is somewhat justified because the children that were being raised would have been neglected otherwise.

 

To counter these concerns however, an in depth look should be taken into the way that these characters are presented and behave. For example Skeeter, who as a protagonist is supposed to be lovable for her outsider status and willingness to stand up for what’s right, is a flawed character within herself. Skeeter does not use her power as a white woman to stand up against her ‘friends’ when they are overtly racist toward the maids, despite expressing discomfort in other ways. Even socially higher Elizabeth allows herself into being peer pressured into isolating and eventually firing Aibileen despite her clear emotional attachment and reliance upon her to fulfill her role as a mother. In this way the film cleverly presents the ways in which racism infiltrates into society as a whole and allows the audience with an insight into how racism survives within, and is perpetuated by, people themselves. By creating characters who have complex relationships with race and people of colour, the film provides an insight into how racism itself functions. People are not wholly good or wholly bad, and to portray racism as simply being the result of a few ‘bad people’ would be false.

 

When looking at The Help’s representation of racial struggles, the film strikes just the right balance between comedic tones and the addressing of much more serious issues. Though it arguably falls into some of the traps of stereotyping and nostalgia, its cultural impact is more positive than negative. For many black audiences the story will tell them nothing new. But if the film allows white audiences an insight into how racism exists as a result of society and the individuals that perpetuate it, then it is contributing to a growing understanding of what racism is and how to overcome it. The Help isn’t simply a representation of the racial struggles of the past, but it also demonstrates the ways in which it is still able to survive within society today.

 

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