The Help: A Harmful Fairy Tale

The Help has certainly garnered its share of attention and awards. Many critics, including some highly respected reviewers, have unreservedly praised the film. The performances of Viola Davis and others mesmerized many moviegoers and are indeed outstanding. Some people have complained about the trite and oversimplified plot—that it is more fairy tale than history but these comments often get lost among the raves and award mentions.

 I agree that it is a fairy tale. More than that, it is a harmful fairy tale.

As in many movies with historical settings, it is easy to be seduced into thinking that the plot at least echoes the actual history.  That is what makes The Help harmful. For African Americans living in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South during the early 1960s, “history as it actually happened” was an unending sequence of terror and violence. Perceived—let alone actual—offenses against white people most often had disastrous and life-ending consequences. (From 1882 through 1968, Mississippi experienced the most lynchings of any state in the Union.)

Consider one of the film’s most important scenes. When Minny, a domestic worker, served up a pie full of excrement to the most vicious of the white women, she lost her job. If she actually had served up such a pie during that time, there is a very high probability that  she would have lost her life, family members would have lost theirs, or—at a minimum—she would have been “taught a lesson” more severe than job displacement.

In an era that produced the brutal assassinations of Medgar Evers (a Civil Rights activist in Mississippi, who was killed in 1963) and many others, are we so naïve as to believe that losing one’s job would be the ultimate penalty for offending a white employer in such a manner?  And while Medgar Evers’ death was mentioned in the film, it seems strange that its impact on the African American characters was largely ignored. The true story, of course, would not make an award-winning Hollywood movie, but instead an R-rated film full of lynchings, constant fear, and brutal beatings. That would be shameful as opposed to celebratory, and shameful doesn’t sell in Hollywood!

Also missing from the movie version of The Help (it was addressed in the book) is the rape of African American women by the “master” of the house. Why was that left out? In the film, the worst indignity involves the unwillingness of some white women to give their African American domestic workers—who cleaned for them, cooked for them, and cared for their children—permission to use their toilets. This is indeed a fairy tale version of what life was really like for those women.

In this context—with its pervasive fear, the constant threat of brutality, and the justified resentment it engendered—it is nearly inconceivable that African American women who worked as domestic workers in the early sixties would “rise up” to tell their stories to a white writer, even if it was someone they knew. They would have been putting their lives and their families in harm’s way. True, many brave African Americans did put their lives and families on the line to gain their civil rights (with the support of some white allies), and The Help does give us snapshots of the women’s fear of talking about their experiences. Ultimately, though, that fear—like most of the realities of that time—is downplayed.

Why does this matter? Because this false rewrite of history provides a false sense of what happened in the United States. By making the U.S. and Mississippi look better than they were at the time, the film joins a movement that is already too much in abundance: glossing over or erasing the true description of the plight of people who have been oppressed by systems that are still impacting millions today.

The movie’s conclusion leaves viewers content with the sense that the system of white privilege has been breached: that “the help” are the victors. As such, it obscures two facts that are critical for us to understand if we are to appreciate and advance the cause of dialogue about race. First, the struggle for civil rights went on far longer (indeed, it still goes on) and was far more perilous than the early 1960s as portrayed in The Help. Second, what The Help tells us is that we still live in a society that wants to underplay the role and impact of racism. Clearly, we have a long way to go.