Is The Help Controversy Legitimate?

The Help hit theaters nationwide this week and controversy has already sprung up about the film, which is a ‘60s-era pic about black maids and their white employers, and a secret women’s literary endeavour. The Association of Black Women Historians came out with a statement recently condemning the film and the novel it’s based on as a story that “distorts, ignores and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.”

The film, based on the novel by Mississippi native Katherine Stockett, deals with a young white woman in Jackson, Mississippi, who convinces some of the black maids of her friends to open up about their experiences as “the help.” Together, these women do something that has never been done before; they defy societal norms and even state laws to write the truth, and they bring about change in the tumultuous civil rights era.

The ABWH released an open statement to all the fans of The Help, citing their specific concerns with the “representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.” The ABWH concluded by saying that they find it “unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.”

Also, according to EW’s cover story on the film, the lead actresses who played the first maids to open up about their experiences are facing this atmosphere of contention as well. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who both gave outstanding performances, are in the position of defending their choice to play the pivotal roles in The Help because of racial controversy.

Davis admits she approached the novel with suspicion “because a white woman was writing what I felt was our story, and once again she’s going to get it wrong and she’s only going to skim the surface.“ But the story, and what Davis termed “the deep humanity of the characters,“ convinced her to be a part of the film. “That’s what people bristle at: the maids,” she said. “I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.”

And Spencer, who played the sassy Minny, had a few words to say about it as well. “It should not be ‘Why is Viola Davis playing a maid in 2011?’ I think it should be ‘Viola Davis plays a maid and she gives the f—ing performance of her life.’”

Spencer makes an excellent point. In the end, this is entertainment and the performances of the actresses and efficacy of the film should merit discussion and attention. Also, the book and film is historical fiction, right? I don’t think the author of the book, or the filmmakers, went about trying to “strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy.” I think, instead, they set about to make a moving and emotionally stunning film, and they succeeded.

Another concern the ABHW addressed was the historical accuracy of the film, and also the “Mammy” stereotype:

The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them.

In fact, the systematic racism and exploitation is not ignored. It is what the plot revolves around, as main character Skeeter (Emma Stone) fights to give the maids a voice, and courageous black women take on the system by confiding in her and sharing their stories.

Racism is most certainly dealt with, and it is exposed as something ugly and unpleasant. So to take issue with this film seems to be counter-productive. Racism is not exalted, it’s condemned, and it is ultimately a vehicle for these women’s (both black and white) inspirational stories.

I could see the film’s portrayal of men being more controversial than claims of racism. Men, both black and white, aren’t painted in a particularly good light. Not that there’s many male characters in the film, nor do they get much screen time.

The Help is a sensitive and empowering story of women, both white and black. It’s a drama about courage and friendship and all those great inspirational themes that can make a drama so effective. On top of that, it’s wonderfully written, has some great (racially respectful) humor, and does what it’s supposed to do; provides quality entertainment and presents some superior cinematic storytelling.

In the end, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. In my opinion, any controversy is good controversy if it brings more attention to this high quality movie. What do you think, is this controversy legitimate?

Comments (14)

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  1. Bethsays:

    I really want to see this film – it looks interesting!

    1. Jillsays:

      These words by author Martha Southgate sum up my objections to the book and film. 

      “The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight – and more important, it was not their idea.

      Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation.” 


      1. russianredsays:

        I did not get that at all from the movie the civil rights movement was used in the backround of the movie it was not the focus point. The focus was the horrible treatment of these wonderful women that took care of White babies; White families in general but were treated with such cruelty. I felt that these Whites were conterdictory of themselves. Blacks are good enough and intrusted to love these precious White babies and were able to handle Whites food, touch and clean thier house hold items; but were not good enough to use the same restrooms; dishes, silverware, or even accedently brush up against a white person etc… And you say Black Americans didn’t need White Americans?  Your right they needed each other and still do.   

      2. Sharon Collinssays:

        I agree with you that the civil rights movement was used as a background symbol of changing times.  But I also think I see Jill’s point.  The maids in The Help were organized and inspired to speak out because of a young white woman.  That is, without that white character the black women in the film would have remained mute. Therefore, the white character was central to the liberation of blacks which, in this case, was their release to tell the truth.  Anyway, I loved the movie.  I also realized that had it been historically accurate those maids would have been discovered, burned and lynched. I know it, but I didn’t want to see it. I preferred a happy ending to a heart broken one.

    2. russianredsays:

      It’s a wonderful and beautiful heartwarming story from both prospectives.  No matter who wrote it.  I saw it last nite with my mother who is 81 and 2 of my sisters  56 and 53. I’m 40 the baby of 16 children. At the end of the movie there was an actual standing obvation. I highly recommend this movie to anyone and everyone. You will be deeply touched.  I’m actually planning to see it again with my husband. And again with my other sisters; who knows maybe will drag our brothers along 😉 

  2. Irisglsays:

    Just saw the movie and Amy is right on point with her rebuttal, if you will, to the ABWH.  The movie is strong and honest in the portrayals of the maids during the early 60’s.  It is fiction.  But it is fiction that clearly shows the societal norms that were present at that time. Sadly, their white employers were caught up in a southern mindset that was a throwback to slavery. The world was changing around them and they were about to get a rude awakening: both black and white. I was moved by a strong cast of women that beautifully interpreted Ms. Stockett’s work.  Well worth seeing.

  3. Byron Rideauxsays:

    Its fiction for goodness sake! That means its not supposed to be accurate! I’m sure the ABWH could find some non-fiction books to trip about rather than go after something thats not meant to be totally true. It tells some historical events that would cause people to research and find out the real story. So they should focus on that. Use the story to create discussions about the topics rather than condemn the book/movie for being written by a white woman.

  4. Bernadetteshea1says:

    As historians, they are performing a disservice to those they purport to inform. It is set in  a period of history that happened just as Gone With The Wind was set within the Civil War & Reconstruction. The main thing these two have in common is that they are FICTION!!! They are further doing a disservice by assuming the audience is too dumb to figure out the difference

  5. dwillwritesays:

    Y’all don’t get it.Yeah, On the surface it is a feel good book and movie. I can’t explain it to you coming from educated black women. And yes, there are many blacks who liked the book and movie. I just had someone tell me the movie was good. It’s complicated but I would have to write a thesis on why the ABWH had issues with it. I would expect nothing else from the author of this columm to defend the movie. What’s that addage about if you could walk in my shoes…..

    1. Anonymoussays:

      So did you see the film. I’m an educated black woman, and it came pretty close to what was going on but afterall it is a book written by a caucasian woman. It was from her prospective, and what she witnessed. We are told we should remember where we came from and be proud, is this not part of our history? Should we just remember the good things? By the way, i’m an African American woman who saw the movie with my caucasian friend; she cried from shame as well as the other caucasians in the film. We can’t continue to hold the pass as a wall in order to keep something between us and them. Let it go and be proud of how much we’ve accomplished because we can’t change the past.

  6. yeswecansays:

    I just finished the book “The Help” and once I started reading it …I could not put it down.  I was truly amazed that this was going on in the 60’s in the south.  Of course, I also thought that the racism in the south was a thing of the past….until I saw our first black president elected (of whom I voted for and truly support) and have seen how he has been treated.  It truly saddens me that this racism continues in the United States of America,  I really thought we were smarter then this.  This book could not have come out at a better time!!!  Read and learn. 

  7. yeswecansays:

    I just finished the book “The Help” and once I started reading it …I could not put it down.  I was truly amazed that this was going on in the 60’s in the south.  Of course, I also thought that the racism in the south was a thing of the past….until I saw our first black president elected (of whom I voted for and truly support) and have seen how he has been treated.  It truly saddens me that this racism continues in the United States of America,  I really thought we were smarter then this.  This book could not have come out at a better time!!!  Read and learn. 

  8. Anonymoussays:

    I went to see this film 2 weeks ago with my 1/2 Puerto Rican/Scottish friend and majority of the people in the theater were caucasian, and I have to say this was one of the best films I’ve watched in years. It’s make you laugh and it makes you cry, brought some humility on both sides. For me it was because of what my sisters and brothers had to go through ( I was not born at this time), and for my friend shame, because she couldn’t believe whites purposely threated other humans this way and took such enjoyment out of doing so. I had no problem with this film, and it needs to be seen especially by other generations and races.

  9. Dominikasays:

    Hi 🙂 I am the student of the III DP. I need to write an essay on a chosen subject. I chose the subject of the controversy over ‘The Help’. For this reason I am asking you for support. I prepared the short survey which will allow me to make my work reliable and credible. I promise I will not publish the results anywhere, I will only analyze it and put the results in my schoolwork. (Without any names!) It is really short and won’t take much time. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make the online version so it would be fantastic if you could send me your answers by e-mail. ([email protected]) It is really important for me. Thanks in advance!

    1.Have you seen or read ‘The Help’
    Yes/ No

    2. If you saw/read it: do you think it was controversial?


    3. What was controversial in your opinion? (You can choose more than one answer)
    a) Nothing
    b) That it touches the topic of racial segregation
    c) That it doesn’t focus on history/It whitewashes the history
    d) That it shows Black people in a bad light/ That it is a perpetuation of a ‘Mammy stereotype’.
    e) That the author of the book is a white women, thus she has absolutely no idea how the Black women could feel and she tells their story; moreover she is a little bit to young to remember how it was in 1960’s
    f) Altough it is supposed to be about Black women history, there is a white heroine who is the most important character
    g) Aibeleen’s figure is a depiction of a real woman Ableen Cooper made without her permission
    h) Black actresses in Hollywood are forced to play such roles even 50 years later (and they win an Oscar for that)
    i) Another:……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

    4.a) Does this picture influence your opinion about black people?


    b) If so, in which way does it influence your opinion?

    Positive / Negative

    5. Choose the correct answer or fill in the gap:
    a) I am a black/white
    b) I am…………years old
    c) I am a man/woman

    Please send the answers to: [email protected]
    Thank you for your help!!! 🙂

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