As a person so far detached from the history and culture of the United States of America, it is difficult for me to even fathom what it’s like to live as an America, especially as a Black American in the 1960s. I don’t think I’d be able to fully understand even if I were to spend the rest of my life doing research on it. Besides, it’s unlikely for such a complex and controversial issue such as racism and segregation to be explained without being coloured with at least a little bit of bias.
Films and books are intrinsically biased. After all, you are consuming the story through the lens of the storyteller – i.e. the author, screenwriter, director, etc. I view films and books that are based on real life as introductory courses to the subject. Are the stories simplified and made pretty to a fault a lot of the time? Sure, but that’s the same way with any sort of education – you learn calculus after you learn arithmetic. That being said, The Help is not just a simplified narrative, a lot of it is simply not true. There are quite a few articles and blogs that have explained the problems with the book and film so it’ll be difficult for me to talk about it in a way that isn’t blatant copying. Instead, I’ll be talking about how racial prejudice has been portrayed in the film and how this is relevant historically and today.
Source: The Help (Film), http://collider.com/the-help-movie-trailer/
Set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, The Help is a 2011 film adaptation of the 2009 novel by Katheryn Stockett with the same name. The film portrays the relationship between Black maids and their White employers and the narrative of the systemic oppression of Black people, even after the abolishment of slavery. One of the first few lines in the film that is said by Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan’s employer is, “I guarantee you one day they’ll find out that cigarettes are bad for you.” This line sets the tone for the film and reminds the audience of how ignorant many of the people were during the time period that this story is set in, and to reserve their judgement towards the characters.
From the Black maids earning lower than minimum wage and not getting social security, to Black people being refused medical treatment by White nurses and doctors; there is no shortage of racist undertones in this film. It is reinforced throughout the film that the lives of Black people can be and will be controlled by their White counterparts, and there are social and legal regulations that keep them trapped under the glass ceiling that prevents them from achieving or being part of the American Dream.
This conflict is portrayed is through the ignorance of the White people regarding the systemic oppression and hardship that their Black counterparts face daily. Skeeter is a sheltered young White woman who was always allowed to do things and go to places that her former maid, Constantine, was allowed. This has made it difficult for her to understand the gravity of her actions that put the Black maids at a great risk. It is only when she starts writing her book that she does research and realises that there are many laws that constrict the social mobility of the Black people. These laws are narrated by Aibilene at intervals throughout the film, which portrays how deeply rooted these rules are to her.
One of the most prominent features of Black history in America revolves around hair. During the time where Black people were forced into slavery, their natural hair texture was often hidden under wigs, or straightened chemically or using heating tools. To the Black slaves then, hairstyling was not just a form of self-expression or show of vanity, but a necessity in order to be deemed acceptable by their owners. Even after slavery was abolished in most parts of the world, there was and is still an overarching pressure for Black people to continue to conform to these unrealistic standards. There is shame associated with the natural appearance of Black hair, which is still present to this day (Thompson, 2009).
In The Help, apart from the scene where Aibilene is in a bathtub, none of the Black characters are shown with the kinky hair texture that is commonly associated with Black people. Instead, the men have shaven or cropped shot hair while the women either wear wigs, straighten their hair, or always have their hair tied tightly in a bun. This is another facet of racial oppression – where a group of people are made to feel that what they are naturally, is unacceptable in society.
When consuming media such as The Help, it is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “At least it’s not THAT bad anymore.” I first wrote a version of this essay in 2015 for a film class that I was taking and a lot of the analysis that appears in this version was done then. Honestly, I used to feel relieved that Black Americans are no longer treated in the way that they were shown to be treated in The Help – until I found out that in 2016 alone, the U.S. police has killed at least 258 Black people, 39 of which were unarmed (Craven, 2016). It doesn’t seem like a lot at first glance since the total population of U.S.A was approximately 322 million people at the end of 2015 (Schlesinger, 2016), but the Black population in U.S.A is only approximately 13% of the total population (United States Census Bureau, n.d.). If this is happening in present day when people are a lot more open-minded and tolerant than the people in the past, how much worse could it have been then? The extent of the violence shown in the film is nowhere close to today’s standards, let alone 1960s standards.
However, the fact remains that if I hadn’t watched The Help, I may have continued being completely insulated from being aware of these issues. Watching a film or reading a book is definitely not enough to be aware of the problems faced by other people, but it is a start.
Craven, J. (2016, 7 7). More Than 250 Black People Were Killed By Police In 2016 [Updated]. Retrieved from The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/black-people-killed-by-police-america_us_577da633e4b0c590f7e7fb17
Schlesinger, R. (2016, January 5). The Size of the U.S. and the World in 2016. Retrieved from U.S. News: https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/robert-schlesinger/articles/2016-01-05/us-population-in-2016-according-to-census-estimates-322-762-018
Thompson, C. (2009). Black Women and Identity: What’s Hair Got to Do With It? Politics and Performativity.
United States Census Bureau. (n.d.). QuickFacts. Retrieved from United States Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/00