The Help: “You ain’t smart, you ain’t kind, and you is kind of important”

This story may seem a bit passé to some of you, as the Tate Taylor directed runaway hit The Help opened in theatres almost a month ago. However, I’m feeling the need to light the internetz ablaze today with talk of this film. This is mostly because in the past week, I have been hearing Oscar buzz for a well-deserving Viola Davis, but also for the film itself in the Best Picture category.

On August 11, 2011, The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement urging fans of both the original Kathryn Stockett book and the film adaptation to re-educate themselves on the true racial tensions of Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. The statement explains, “Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.”  Baaaam. These ladies ain’t playin’.

I myself both read the original Kathryn Stockett text and saw the film opening weekend. I was underwhelmed with both. While I hate to sound like a Negative Nellie here, the ABW may have hit it exactly on the nose when deeming the “Mammy” stereotype alive and well in this rose-coloured Black History lesson. For those of you unfamiliar with the Mammy archetype, the ABW explains it as “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.” Again, you just got served The Help, seriously served.

My personal understandings of the Mammy archetype stem from one of my all-time favorite movies, the Victor Fleming masterpiece Gone With The Wind.  I first saw this movie at age 8, one rainy day at the cottage when all my grandmother could do to keep her sanity was to stuff my sisters and I chalk-full of the MSG deliciousness that is Chinese food and put on the longest movie known to man, i.e. Gone With The Wind. I initially loved the Mammy character who is, in the film, literally named Mammy. It wasn’t until my post-secondary English classes in which I became familiar with how damaging these portrayals actually were to an already oppressed African American population. (Thanks for the education, Dad. Money well spent, for serious).

But I think what really miffed me about The Help, (and here I am speaking more to the film than the text), is the saviour complex given to the Skeeter character, played respectably by the summer box office It Girl Emma Stone. It wasn’t just that the African American female characters all seemed to be variations on the same stereotypically sassy yet silent Mammy archetype, or that the African American man was represented as “drunkards, abusive, or absent,” as the ABW explains it. It was that the most important narratives of all, the Black maids incredible courage in sharing their stories in a time of tremendous conflict and bloodshed, took a back seat to Skeeter’s own lame triumph. Yes, I said it. Her triumph was downright lame. Yeah, Skeeter got to become a published author while sitting comfortably in her own Jackson version of Tara. I mean, who cares that Aibileen and Milly risked life and limb to tell you their stories. Good for you, Skeetz! You totes rocked it, girl!

So as it stands, The Help is getting a ton of Oscar buzz. Now, if anybody reading this knows me, you know that Oscar night is my holy night. Seriously, I train all year to not only have enough energy to make it through the excitement overload that is the Oscar telecast, (OMG Harvey Weinstein, OMG I think Hugh Jackman’s going to dance, OMG that movie is soooo overrated, right? RIGHT? ANSWER ME OSCAR PARTY GUESTS), but also to truly destroy my Oscar pool. (Yeah, take that Uncle George. I just destroyed you. How to Train Your Dragon for Best Animated Feature? Gaaawwwd). But every few years, there comes along a movie that presents a moral challenge for me. This is a film, not to name any names (cough King’s Speech cough),that although it is a lock to clean up, I cannot bring myself to vote for it as I feel it is overrated. I worry that The Help will be one of those movies. I’m in full support of Viola Davis getting an Oscar nod, Emma Stone I could even deal with. But as for the movie, I just can’t get behind it. So I’m going to start taking sedatives now in preparation for Oscar night. So far, none of my guests from last year’s Oscar party said they’d be attending this year, but whatevs.

What did you think of The Help?  I want to know! Comment, share, destroy! 

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2 comments on “The Help: “You ain’t smart, you ain’t kind, and you is kind of important”

  1. GB says:

    Hey K it’s your cous, I love your blog! I knew you were a good writer, but you just blew me away! You are really a beautiful writer!

  2. Melanie Lee Lockhart says:

    I haven’t seen the movie or read the book (though I received a copy as a gift), but I’m yet to feel compelled to do either. Think I’ll likely give it a pass – my “to read” pile is tall enough as it is!

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