Spring 2022

Who Does ‘The Help’ Help? A Curt Critique

Just like we can ask in 2023 who feels free in watching “Emancipation,” we should also ask who “The Help” actually helps.

by Frederick W. Gooding, Jr.

Allow us to begin our critique here with a pointed question – namely, “Who does the movie ‘The Help’ actually help?”

Quite flatly and frankly, it may primarily help my white brothers and sisters. But it certainly is not helping me.

In considering how film can help us critique “systems of oppression and imagine egalitarian alternatives,” this article offers a pointed critique of the 2011 movie, “The Help,” which arguably, was created to foster a message of racial comity, but in actuality only reinforced and underscored problematic racial narratives that still remain relatively unchallenged and unquestioned.

Allow me to explain.

Great Intent?

“The Help” was not only a successful box office hit, but was also an Academy Award winning movie based upon the New York Times best-selling novel[1] by white female author Kathryn Stockett. Theoretically, it shows how the socio-economic worlds of Black and white female characters intersect and overlap in the name of shared experience in a racially segregated Mississippi. However, I argue that the movie “The Help” in actuality only “helps” white women audience members assuage themselves of any guilt associated with historical tensions surrounding white obliviousness or ambivalence to the true Black female condition.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, “The Help” imagines a world where white writer and protagonist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) helps Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) voice their frustrations without materially altering their conditions. Image via IMDb.

While I have several critiques of this film, all if not most of which I believe to believe to substantially valid, for the purposes of this conversation here, I will merely focus on one angle that is likely obvious to all who actually watched the movie. But yet, as a wise person once told me, “it is not obvious until it is noticed,” and thus I wish to be thorough and point out how the movie truly reveals the true audience and purpose of its creation through careful observation of the simple, universal story telling technique of a character arc.

Ultimately, the two principal Black female characters, Abiliene (Viola Davis) and the Oscar winning role of Minny (Octavia Spencer) were merely stooges to the principal protagonist of the movie, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Watson), who experienced the most complicated and most developed character arc in the movie.

Before diving headlong into what is problematic about this movie, I wish to first share my belief that the movie was indeed created with nothing but the most noble of intentions. Likely, the movie was viewed as an opportunity to provide additional exposure to “hidden figures” that often go unheralded or unnoticed.

The author, Kathyrn Stockett, invested considerable time observing “the help” around her grandmother’s house and was able to begin crafting composite characters based upon what she saw at close hand.[2] Thus, I believe the intent of the author was to provide a narrative filled with tenderness and care that could truly make Black women part of a compelling story.

However, for me, this is precisely the issue – the Black women were mere parts of a larger, more compelling story that definitively revolved around a central white female character. 

Poor Impact

In stark contrast to the two central Black female characters, I wish to point out that the character of Skeeter, as played by Emma Watson, had the most developed and complicated character arc, thereby making her the true protagonist of the movie. Even though the movie’s marketing campaign labored to emphasize the presence of Black voices and Black agency through Abilene and Minny, in actuality, it was Skeeter’s show.

What do I mean?

Well, let us take a quick look at Skeeter and her character arc, or her ability to change and grow over time during the course of the movie. Skeeter had several significant events occur to which we as an audience were privy. Let us not forget that Skeeter started off the movie as a self-conscious, somewhat tentative young college graduate who simply wanted an opportunity to ply her trade of writing and journalism and sharing of stories. She was initially rebuffed by a disinterested white male who was in charge of the local newspaper from which she sought employment. But undeterred, Skeeter persevered and was able to create an opportunity for herself as a local advice columnist.

Although “The Help” is at least in theory about Black domestic Image via IMDb.

Thus, early in the film, we see Skeeter emerge victorious as she pushed back against a white male dominant establishment that assumed her invisibility and quiet quiescence. However, after “winning” the right to compose a “Miss Myrna” housekeeping advice column, it just so happened that Skeeter actually needed advice for her advice column, and sought out the sagacious input of Abiliene. Therefore, we as viewers are somewhat free to decide whether it is Skeeter who should receive credit for finding Abiliene and for giving her ideas voice, or whether Skeeter is actually leveraging Abiliene’s advice for her own personal gain. In other words, we have a tangible question as to whether Skeeter is utilizing Abiliene properly, or is simply using her.

What we do know is that Skeeter is able to leverage the successful advice column, fueled and fortified by a Black voice, with other white people to land herself an actual book contract. Once armed with this book contract, Skeeter then persuades other Black women connected through Abiliene’s domestic worker network to also share their stories. Perhaps the movie makers thought that justice was being effectuated with Skeeter “raising the voices” of the unseen and often hidden Black labor, however, this African American male author interpreted it differently.

Along the way towards completing her self-authored book, Skeeter receive significant screen time to resolve and reconcile important and meaningful personal relationships. First, with her former love interest, Stuart Whitworth (Chris Lowell) and more importantly, Skeeter is able to reconcile with her mother, Charlotte (Charlotte Phelan) as they had a dispute over how their former elderly Black help named Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson) was treated at their own cotton plantation.

As “The Help” is indeed a Hollywood movie, the white mother and daughter are of course able to reconcile their personal differences after Charlotte comes to Skeeter’s defense from town bully Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). Moreover, both mother and daughter realize how much they truly and sincerely love each other and will not allow a mere misunderstanding when it comes to how socially disadvantaged employed Black women are treated within their house get in the way of their meaningful relationship. In other words, they were able to reassure themselves that they were still good people as Skeeter essentially brought courage (and honor) back to the family plantation after it skipped a generation.

Can Someone Help Me?

But also, I am looking for help to understand what the payoff could possibly be for Black audiences. By the movie’s third act, Skeeter’s book is released with no direct mention of how much of the associated proceeds will be shared – if at all – with the Black female voices who engineered the substantive content of her book. Then subsequently, it is Skeeter who is able to leverage her success from the book she authored with a new career in New York city working with a forward-thinking, liberal white female Harper & Row publisher named Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen).

Therefore, although Skeeter starts off in Mississippi just like the two Black female “protagonists,” it is she and she alone who is able to successfully negotiate down white males in power, leverage an advice column into a book contract, then flip the book contract into a ticket out of Mississippi entirely! In the interim, the character arcs of Black domestic workers Abiliene and Minny remain relatively static. As in, they start the movie off as subjugated Black women who, for example, were refused the dignity of using the indoor toilet during stormy and inclement weather outside. Yet, both Black maids end the movie as subjugated Black women.

While technically Abiliene “quits” her job and says that she might now pursue her career as a writer, the viewing audience only sees her walking off into the distance contemplating her future. But we as the viewing audience DO NOT see Abiliene become a successful author before our very eyes the way we saw Skeeter blossom into an effective author.

In following the character arcs of the two (reportedly) Black female protagonists, Abiliene and Minny, I must break the bad news in reminding readers that both Black women were last seen on screen (as in, their final scenes) in maid outfits. While the movie is merely an abstraction of time and only provides a slice of a larger story, for the visible continuum [3] that we saw as audience members, did NOT see these two Black women transcend their status as Black maids insofar that they were mostly visually identifiable by their job function or their maid uniforms.

Thus, when the movie is viewed and critically analyzed through the perspective of the principal two Black female characters, the movie falls woefully short of developing three-dimensional characters that are able to successfully interrupt seemingly intractable messages of racial hierarchy. Therefore, “The Help” ironically and ultimately only reinforces the very narratives that it proclaims to challenge. A “feel-good” movie like this was designed likely with every intention of fostering goodwill and warm sentiment about race relations within society. Yet, if Nikole Hannah-Jones is to be believed with her 1619 project,[4] then we must be willing to accept that a society that institutionalized an unfair and discriminatory oppressive web of psychological, physical and fiscal restrictions over 400 years ago, may not be able to solve all of its layered, nuanced and exceedingly complex issues and challenges tied to American race relations within the span of a two-and-a-half hour Hollywood movie.

I had similar misgivings as I debated the efficacy of movies leveraging their imaginative powers to recreate the past when watching the 2022 release, “Emancipation,” starring Will Smith and directed by Antoine Fuqua. Perhaps movies like “The Help” and “Emancipation” receive so much mainstream attention because their portrayals remind (or in some cases inform) members of the viewing audience of the painful past to which we are presently connected. At the same time, we must also remind ourselves that such movies are NOT documentaries and are Hollywood studio productions made not just for art’s sake, but to turn a profit for their investors, bottom line. Thus, movies like “Emancipation” and “The Help” – despite the best of their intentions – often run the risk of 1) essentializing “good” and “bad” actors in a simplified world of “black and white” without much nuance, 2) dramatizing visceral violence and truly terrifying trauma in the name of entertainment (N.B.: “Emancipation” is classified as an “action thriller”[5]), and finally 3) glorifying or overselling white actors’ involvement who absolutely must be included to ensure the movie’s marketability to cover the studio’s investment, which in the case of “Emancipation,” was a cool $125 million dollars with $35 million going to Smith alone.

But my complaints in the foregoing paragraph stem from larger systematic critiques that almost exclusively frame Black existence through the “gravity of reality” (i.e., based upon true stories/events) as opposed to movies starring white protagonists that are in contrast liberated by the “freedom of fantasy” (think “Avatar,” “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter” series) [6]. Perhaps then, such movies serve their purpose in connecting us to the enduring conflict negotiated by subjugated individuals – their bodies may be their own, but are nonetheless free to be exploited or leveraged for larger causes by the dominant class, which incidentally could also produce benefits for the beholder. “Emancipation’s” true-life protagonist, Gordon, famously had his heavily keloid-scarred back photographed by white photographers with the resulting portait of cruelty becoming a factor in swaying public opinion about the obviously oppressive nature of chattel enslavement. Or should we say white public opinion – many Blacks were well acquainted with the heinous hypocrisy affectionally called “the necessary evil,” which brings us full circle to the question of who benefits the most from the circulation of such imagery (albeit for profit). Just like we can ask in 2023 who feels free in watching “Emancipation,” we should also ask who “The Help” actually helps.

Ultimately, the movie “The Help” represents another missed opportunity to bring a larger audience together to wrestle with substantive issues of power and control that unfortunately stubbornly persist, most especially when it comes to race relations. A movie that purports to tell an inclusive story in actuality prioritizes the white female image and promotes her character as more important and worthy of the audience’s attention. Yet, the audience can hardly be fully blamed for such myopia when structurally, Skeeter’s character arc was constructed as markedly more complex and developed than that of the two main Black female characters, Abiliene and Minny. If anything, Skeeter’s developed character arc only helps the audience walk away from the theater with yet another example of a white female wrestling with triumphs whereby Black women simultaneously were wrestling with trauma.

What would really help me would be the opportunity to see and hear what the dark world of Black domestic work really looked and felt like from the authentic perspective of one who actually had the experience.

I suppose I will have to stay tuned for the prequel.

Frederick W. Gooding, Jr. is an Associate History Professor and the inaugural holder of the Dr. Ronald E. Moore Endowed Professor of the Humanities at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. “Dr. G,” as he is affectionately known, recently served as the Leonard A. Lauder Visiting Senior Fellow for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC during the summer of 2021.

Further Reading

[1] “Ms. Stockett has stayed within the Top 5 on The New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best-Seller list since August.” Motoko Rich, “A Southern Mirrored Window,” The New York Times, November 2, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/books/03help.html.

[2] “The first voice to come to her was that of Demetrie, the African-American maid who worked for Ms. Stockett’s grandmother in Jackson in the 1970s and ’80s. ‘She came out in the voice of Aibileen,’ Ms. Stockett said.” Rich, “A Southern Mirrored Window,” The New York Times.

[3] Or known events that occur between a movie’s opening and closing credits. Frederick Gooding, Jr., You Mean, There’s RACE in My Movie? The Complete Guide to Understanding Race in Mainstream Hollywood (Silver Spring, MD: On the Reelz Press, 2007), 116.

[4] Arun Venugopal, “’1619 Project’ journalist says Black people shouldn’t be an asterisk in U.S. history,” NPR Fresh Air, November 17, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/11/17/1056404654/nikole-hannah-jones-1619-project.

[5] “It is a historically dubious, morally incurious piece of genre fare that satisfies as entertainment and not much else.” K. Austin Collins, “‘Emancipation’ Isn’t Will Smith’s Big Redemption Tour. It’s a B-Movie About Slavery,” Rolling Stone, December 2, 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-reviews/emancipation-review-1234639910/

[6] More specifically, the Gravity of Reality concept applies to “movies that prominently feature African American characters because they are dealing with themes expressly based around racial identity or race relations,” whereas movies featuring the Freedom of Fantasy concept often depict white characters enabled, enhanced and liberated by “shooting on location in faraway places, expensive computer-generated imagery (CGI), or the costs associated with building elaborate sets or filming dynamic car chase scenes replete with flaming explosions or staging hundreds of costumed extras.” Frederick W. Gooding, Jr., Black Oscars: What the Academy Awards Tell Us about African Americans (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), pp. 5-6.

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