Looking back, I should have followed my initial black feminist inclination to skip out on seeing a Tyler Perry approved film about race and gender in America. I feared that The Help would follow the trite “white person saves poor black person/people” storyline that characterizes too many Hollywood films. Ultimately, I realized that it wasn’t fair for me to critique a film that I had never seen before. Given that truth, I went against my gut. I caved in to the voices around me that were describing in the film in a neutral or even positive light and walked into Regal Cinema in DC Chinatown and took a seat.
The vast majority of movie goers in the theater that Friday night were white women, the target audience for the film. The trail of trailers shown before the film set the stage for the film itself. My friend described the previews as a sign that we were entering “romantic comedy Hell”. Lol.
Once the film began, I braced myself to see a white person rescue seemingly powerless black people from their miserable existence. Instead, I witnessed a 23 year old white woman, Skeeter, chronicle the stories of her own black maid and those belonging to her friends. As heroine of the story, she bravely picked up a pen and wrote down the stories of the oppressed domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi during Jim Crow. Perhaps a full on rescue would have been too much for a genteel young white woman of those times.
The black maids in the story were literate; however, they did not write their own stories. Instead, they spoke them to Skeeter, a white woman half their age, so that she could document them. Skeeter’s motivation to share the black women’s stories was born in her pity for her own black mammy from childhood, who was suddenly fired after 30 years of hard work because of an unwritten rule in wealthy white ladies superficial social club culture.
Looking intently at the screen, I patiently waited for a plot turn that included an act of serious resistance by one or many of the black maids. I thought that maybe the black women would stand up for their rights as workers and go on strike or maybe they would start a letter writing campaign to their state legislators. After all, acts of civil disobedience were central to the civil rights movement. Much to my dismay, the most powerful act of resistance involved a maid baking a pie for her white boss lady.
Once I heard about the lawsuit initiated by Ablene Cooper, the maid whose story inspired the book from which the movie originated, I became even more remorseful for buying tickets to this movie. The black woman who told this story is not receiving her fair share of the royalties gained from either the book or the movie. Cooper’s painful story has been appropriated to generate profits that she may never see.