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?