I mulled over that question after leaving an advance screening of the movie based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. What if, say, Alice Walker had sat down to write the story of southern black maids detailing the cruelty and humiliation they endured at the hands of their white female employers during Jim Crow? Would that mitigate the feelings of anger and frustration I felt as I returned to my car?
**SPOILERS AHEAD! **
I’d been invited to the screening a few weeks prior and reluctantly RSPVed. I hadn’t read the novel but bought a copy for my mother to read for her book club last year. I’d been living in a blissful bubble, had no clue what The Help was about until a few months back when I heard rumblings about the upcoming film from several womanist blogs and black film sites. When I learned that Stockett is white, my heart sank. Yes, I was angry about a book I hadn’t read, frustrated by what I perceived to be another story of downtrodden black women lifted out of the dusky cave of their existence by a Conscious White Woman — who gets all the glory. No thank you, Hollywood. I’ve seen that movie one too many times. All week long, I balked at the idea of attending the screening and was even going to give away my tickets the day of, but I had already invited my mother. I couldn’t back out.
As we parked and made our way across the street to the Regal movie theater in downtown L.A., I noticed that the line stretching around the building was largely black and female. No surprise there as the event was sponsored by the Hollywood Bureau of the NAACP. I studied the faces of other sisters as I passed, trying to gauge their feelings. Was anyone else torn about seeing the movie? Were they there to support black actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in an industry where meaty roles for black women are rare? Or were they simply lined up to see a free movie? I settled into my seat, thinking these things, as the house lights dimmed.
The movie opens with a feminine white hand scribbling on a tablet as a black woman speaks in a weary voiceover. The hand holding the pen belongs to Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a cheeky 23-year-old graduate of Ole Miss who yearns to be a writer. Aibileen Clark, she of the weary voice, is being interviewed about her life as a maid, about how it feels to raise white babies while her own are left at home to raise themselves, about how it feels to work in the home of white folks all day but be denied the use of their toilet. “Do you ever dream of being somebody else?” Skeeter asks.
The opening scene told me everything I needed to know about the rest of the movie. Even though Aibileen speaks in voiceover throughout the film as if the story is hers, this is not her story. The story belongs to Skeeter, a curly-haired nonconformist. She is the only one among her pompadoured and spritzed Bridge Club homies, Hilly and Elizabeth, not desperate for a man, babies or a prominent place in society. Skeeter is the Good White Woman, the liberated woman disturbed by segregation, bothered that her white friends toss about the word “nigger” in the presence of their servants and deny them access to the commode. Skeeter is so “good” and so defiant in the face of Jim Crow that it seems she can single-handedly usher in the Civil Rights Movement.
The movie deals in binaries aplenty, draped in Confederate flags, hanging moss and “Whites Only” signs. Nothing is nuanced in this flick, as if the director took a page out of the Tyler Perry Manual of Filmmaking. Judging by the raucous laughter that floated up to me in the balcony, I’d say he succeeded. The white women, particularly Bryce Howard’s odious housewife Hilly, are ruthless bigots solely concerned with maintaining their way of life and keeping the nigras in their place. The black women exist merely as props for them to perpetrate their evil — or as consolers, as holders of white babies, as sassy chicken fryers. “Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life,” says the feisty Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, as she consoles her employer, Celia, after a recent miscarriage. Potty jokes are rife in this film — from Aibileen’s attempts to toilet train Elizabeth’s toddler, Mae Mobley, to Hilly’s mission to have every white household build a separate toilet for servants, to the shit Minny bakes into a chocolate pie and serves to Hilly. I had no idea The Help was a comedy. Many times, I fidgeted in my seat as the largely black audience hooted at what was supposed to be a sobering look at the sometimes tense relationship that exists between black and white women. I’m no curmudgeon. I chuckled during a few scenes, but it felt more like I was laughing to keep from crying.
As the movie wore on, Skeeter grew more dogged in her pursuit of collecting the maids’ stories. Her manuscript-in-the-making attracted the attention of an editor at Harper & Row, and she was given three weeks to submit a draft. It felt like Skeeter was more concerned with publication than with the lives of her black subject matter. Although Aibileen had written down her personal anecdotes about maiddom, and revealed that her son believed there was going to be “a writer in the family” prior to his death, I had difficulty relating to Aibileen’s story. None of the black women seemed to have any agency, seemed to have a life outside of a white woman’s kitchen. Did Aibileen like to sing or dance? Did she like to pick flowers or make lemonade? If she or any of her fellow maids had an interior life, it was drowned out by the incessant drumbeat of despair.
As trope after trope of black womanhood piled up — the sassy black woman, the noble, long-suffering black woman, the black woman dealing with an abusive man — I grew angry at Stockett, a rich, privileged white woman, for unleashing The Help on the world. I grew angry at Hollywood for continuing to churn out such narrow representations of black womanhood, sacrificing our struggles, our pain, our spirit on the altar of entertainment. I grew angry at the NAACP for endorsing this movie and telling us to throw “Help parties,” as if independent black films don’t languish in production hell or die a quick death if they are fortunate enough to make it to the big screen, as if Stockett is some struggling writer who doesn’t already have an international following and the backing of a major publishing house and studio, as if there is a dearth of schmaltzy flicks where the cute white girl gets to be the hero, and the black supporting cast lines up behind her like a ragged rainbow.
By the end of the film, Skeeter’s tome The Help is published, albeit the author is Anonymous. She splits her advance with each maid who contributed to the work and heads off to New York for a bright future at Harper & Row. The audience at the screening clapped and chuckled at Minny’s excitement over the paltry change she is given for divulging a painful part of her life. Minny is so thrilled that she leaves her famous fried chicken on the stove to burn as she runs screaming through the house. As I listened to the laughter of the people around me, I wondered if they really believed The Help is Minny’s story or that Aibileen is really “the writer in the family.”
As black folk, many of us have had mothers, grandmothers or aunties who did day work, who cleaned up behind white people, and their stories deserve to be told. Which brings me back to my original question: What if a black woman had written The Help? What would the book have looked like in the hands of a black writer whose mother was “the help” or from the mind of a woman who cleaned houses for a living during the 60s, who experienced first-hand how it felt to be marginalized and disenfranchised not just under Jim Crow, but at the hands of the folks whose toilets she scrubbed? Would that book have seen the light of day? Would that book have been such an international success if there had been black faces featured on the front and back covers, or are such books only lucrative if they are filtered through the gaze of a white author? Am I saying that only black authors are allowed to write stories about black life and any attempt by a white writer is cultural appropriation and exploitation? No. Maybe what I’m really lamenting is this love affair literature and film seem to have with servile black women, this never-ending narrative of black women needing to be saved. Skeeter asks Aibileen, “Do you ever dream of being somebody else?” My answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Give me a servant who can save herself. Give me a maid with superpowers.
As I walked out of the theater, wrestling with these feelings, I turned to my mom. Her mother was a cleaning woman, and she sometimes accompanied my grandmother as she did day work. Mom liked the novel and thought it was well written.
“So what did you think about the movie?” I asked as we stood on the corner, waiting for the light to change.
“It was entertaining,” she said. We stepped into the crosswalk, and I buttoned my denim jacket against the wind. “A little bit better than some, but not as good as most.”
That’s good enough for me.