Bloggers are well aware of the firestorm of praise and critique of the The Help. In a glowing review of the movie as a personally transformative event, one blogger writes, “shame on you if you don’t cry.” Contrarily, J. Kameron Carter argues: “It Ain’t About Black Women – It’s About White Women,” a position that others have supported by pointing out that the movie is the white character Skeeter’s “coming of age story,” in which the black characters, Aibileen and Minny, serve as tributaries to her conversion of conscience and praxis. Others, including Rosetta E. Ross of Spelman College’s Religious Studies Department, are boycotting the movie as a protest against the use, once again, of black women in the advancement of white womanhood.
I saw the film this past Friday, so I have had a couple of days to mull it over. I am on the fence between life-changing come-to-Jesus moment and yet another example of the subordination of the black experience to white fulfillment. Honestly, I think the film is a little from column A, a litte from column B. I would like to offer a couple of insights:
- This film ought not make anyone “feel good” about “how far we’ve come.” The condition of racially, socially, and economically marginalized workers today is strong evidence that we have not come very far at all. Aibileen and Minny are still working among us, toiling in homes, agricultural fields, hotels, and restaurant kitchens. Indeed, there are thousands of workers who are still enslaved and forced to work against their will and without pay in the United States and throughout the world. Our global economy is fueled by this kind of economic exploitation. Fictional Skeeter may have found her voice, but our racial history leaves us with few reasons to celebrate.
- I would also like to address the claim that the narrative is about white womanhood. Skeeter is clearly the narratival and experiential center of the film, the young woman who discovers the spirit of resistance in the midst of the mid-20th-century white power structure (although, to be fair, the realization that black women are people, too, is not radical). But Aibileen and Minny are clearly main characters, as well. Aibileen narrates the film, and through the subtleties of the story, emerges as the source of strength, wisdom, and perseverance for the entire community. She is not a passive character, but the agent of transformation for Skeeter, Minny, and the other women who share their stories in the book. For Minny’s part, her experience of voicing her narrative gives her the strength to resist her husband’s abuse, tapping into the pluck that drove her to resist her boss through, one could say, creative measures. Her story in the film ends with her being served, for just one meal, by her white employers who seem to recognize Minny’s humanity. Rather than framing the story in terms of a zero-sum game in which only the white women or the black women are the subject, I interpreted the film as a story of an encounter between these women, which ultimately transforms them all and, even if tentatively and minutely, transforms their social reality. That being said, the film certainly pays less attention to the nuances of Black womanhood than white womanhood, which is certainly worthy of critique.
- Finally, I would encourage anyone who is able to watch and engage the film. I do not blame professor Ross for boycotting, as the content of the film is certainly upsetting if engaged below the shiny veneer of structured dresses, scrumptious food, and race redemption. At the same time, it is difficult (if not impossible) to effectively critique cultural material that one has not actually engaged. This movie has the capacity to prick our consciences. Despite the boisterous laughter among the primarily white audience with which I watched the film, I do not think it was very funny. In my analysis, the film is best approached with sobriety, attentiveness, and humility that acknowledges our ongoing societal participation in racial, social, and economic injustice, with an awareness of the absolute necessity of our cooperation with God’s grace to continue work towards the good.