Psst, I Don't Give My Money to Racist Movies: Why I'm STILL Not Going to See the Help

Last year I found myself stuck in New York City on an unexpected multi-hour layover, so I headed to a bookstore to see what I could get into. Kathryn Stockett's The Help was prominently displayed, and while I'd heard of it, I'd been too busy to really pay attention to what it was about. Like any social media fan, I took a picture of the cover, posted it to Twitter, and asked my community if I should read it.

The tweet-reactions sent back to me were intriguing:"Hell-to-the-no!" and "Read it so we can find out what YOU think about it," and "I loved the book. It changed my life."


But, I bought it and settled into the oh-so-uncomfortable waiting area at my gate at JFK to read. Only a few pages in, I got that sinking feeling you get when you've plunked down your cash for a hardcover book, only to realize it's not that great. But, with nothing else to do, I kept reading.

As the pages sped by, I started checking off the cliches: Plucky white heroine who's clearly going to be the savior of these black maids? Check. Black woman's husband beats her? Check. Sassy black maid? Check.

By the time I actually got on my flight to LAX, I was giving the text some serious side-eye. And then the 60-something-year-old white lady sitting across the aisle from me saw it in my hand and positively gushed about it. There was some serious "Oh I looooved that book. It is such a wonderful story! It reminded me of my own childhood in the South and my Mammy," mess coming out of her mouth. In response, I did that thing you do on airplanes when you start yawning and fake dozing off to sleep--all so you can stop talking to Ms. Weren't-those-the-good-ole-days?

Once home in Los Angeles, I found myself unable to pick The Help back up. Oh, I still have the book, but I admit I didn't mind when my puppy attacked it and chewed up a significant portion. And when I heard about the film, my first reaction was how sad it is that an actress of Viola Davis' calibre has to portray a maid to get a job, and how comfortable an America that can't deal with a black president would be about it.

Who knew just what a success the film would be? Last weekend the endless surprise that I or anybody else would think that it's McRacist--and then white folks insisting that it's not racist--started grating on my nerves.

On Monday I wrote this as my personal Facebook page status:
Thinking about organizing a salon-style discussion meet-up about The Help so folks who went to the film/loved the book, can consult in person with those who'd rather stab themselves in the eye than support racist bullshit.
I shared some links that explained why: this great piece from a young woman named Summer who contributes to the Black Youth Project; Bernestine Singley's account of a white woman raised by Singley's mom calling up to reconnect; noted scholar Melissa Harris-Perry's review of the film--she called it ahistorical and deeply troubling--and my sister-in-spirit, blogger Mocha Momma's spot-on analysis of how books like The Help create a false conversation about race in America.

I was asked to further explain myself, which is cool. I'm down for conversation.

I shared how I couldn't finish it because it made me so upset and angry. But I don't feel bad, I wrote, about not finishing because the book is one of those "I don't need to watch porn where women are beaten to know that I don't want to watch it kind of things."

I shared how I don't believe this movie is going to spark a desire to learn the truth about that time period. "I gotta say that somehow I don't think that all the crowds that headed to see this movie are gonna head over to Amazon and start snapping up books that detail the real (not fantasy) experiences of black folks in Mississippi (or anywhere else in the South) at this time period," I wrote. "But I bet they'll believe they really understand what it was like to be a black domestic, or black person."

And, yes, I got snarky when I said that "maybe they'll run over to HSN and buy themselves some Help-inspired cookware. I'm sure that every time they cook something in their "Help" skillet, they'll think about how Jim Crow South was actually a police state where a black person could be murdered by a white person, and the jury wouldn't convict them."

I also admitted that it makes me angry that "on the one hand, people say if black women don't like The Help, we should write our own stories--all while failing to recognize that there are PLENTY of black writers who DO write books and screenplays about our experiences, but because of racism in the publishing and film industries, their work NEVER gets the time of day. Unless, of course, they make the main character a white woman and it's her fabulous coming of age story/mission trip."

But I'm not just hating that Kathryn Stockett, a white woman, is the one writing this story. Even though I love fantasy novels, "given that racism still plays itself out in very real ways still, I don't want to see fantasy about this topic." Can we get a real story first? Something that's not racial revisionist history?

I'm a really fast reader so I managed to get through a good portion of it while waiting in the airport last year. It was almost laughable that Stockett expected us readers to believe that no one would notice Skeeter sneaking around in the black neighborhood to visit the maids. Maybe white readers would buy that, but black folks? We know better. Heck, half the time we STILL can't walk around in Macy's without getting followed. And call me a pessimist, but I couldn't swallow that none of those maids would be murdered or have their homes firebombed.

"Or," I asked, "did those kinds of REAL things happen in the part of the book that I didn’t get to because it was making me sick?"

The truth is, I wrote, "Stockett gives America the same ole comfortable fantasies about how there were all these well-meaning, warm-hearted white people that were truly on the side of race unity and the civil rights movement. Um, no. If that was the case, why was the Montgomery Bus Boycott a FULL YEAR LONG? Why did it take a Supreme Court decision to end bus segregation if there were all these Skeeters rolling around the South?"
This weekend will be the weekend of commercials encouraging you to go see the movie, The Help, that has America talking. They'll pump up Viola Davis' amazing performance, and how it's about women banding together to solve racism. It's just SO "feel good" that you won't want to miss it.

I'm still not buying it. My $13.50 will stay in my wallet. As I wrote to my Facebook friends earlier this week, "at a time when we really need racial healing--when my kid gets called an African bitch at his school--I'm not settling for the crumbs that The Help and Hollywood are throwing my way. Come correct, or don't come at all.


Nerd Girl said…
I'm going to try to avoid blogging in your comments...let's see if it works.

I liked the book. I thought it was well written, the character development was awesome, and the storyline kept me interested until the very end. I read it late last year.

I'm honestly quite surprised at the amount of criticism the book - and movie - are receiving. It's a work of fiction for crying out loud. I don't look to be informed by works of art. And I'm well beyond worrying about what "they" will think about "us" because of this book/movie or any other. I'm weary of all the race talk in general. Just burned out.

I'm sure you've heard by now about the black man - James Anderson - who was beaten and killed here in MS by a group of white teenagers back in June. There are just bigger and more pressing - issues to worry about than reaction to a book/movie. I'm sorry, I just can't get all worked up about this. I just can't.
Jen said…
Nerd Girl is right, it is just a book. The problem is that the educational system in this country is so lacking, many people only learn about these things in books or movies.
I think a lot of people love this type of work because they know that life was bad in the south back then and it makes them feel good to think there were some good white people doing the right thing. The truth is ugly and doesn't fit so well into a 2 hour movie. And these fictional feel-good tales don't do the truth any justice. The first time I saw the preview for The Help I was extremely skeptical (I had not heard of the book when it came out) and from what I have read since makes me think I would not enjoy it.
A better read might be The Warmth of Other Suns. I rather learn more about actual history than partake in a feel-good, white-washed version of events. It does a disservice to those who worked so hard to get to where we are today and to those who continue make our world a more just place.
The wonderful thing about America is that you can voice your opinion and choose whether or not to see the movie and/or read the book.

However, my mother who was born in rural South Carolina in 1939 AND who actually experienced segregation - white and colored drinking fountains, a segregated high school, riding in the back of the bus...just to name a few of the actions associated with being a "colored" person in the south...loved the book AND the movie.

I've read alot of the criticism of the book and the movie and I'm unimpressed. When a person who lived through the period can see the good and the humanity in the book without adding all the racial angst to it (white girl saving the black people, why can't we tell our own civil rights story, etc., etc.) I'll go with her opinion.
rae spellman said…
Of course life experiences are more important than what one reads or sees. But, every book is more than just a book and every movie is more than just a movie.

What gets consumed, produced, and distributed is a reflection of our collective societal values. Media impacts peoples impressions of others and themselves.

Since black people are not monolithic, it is to be expected that some of us will love this film, some of us will hate it, and some of us will be indifferent to it.

As someone who craves stories told about black women I can relate to from a point of view I can relate to, and as the granddaughter of women who were "the help," I have no interest in the movie or the book.

If it was from the point of view of a younger black woman telling the story of her grandmother and her grandmother's contemporaries, I might be interested. If it were from the point of an older black woman looking back on that time, I might be interested. As it is currently being marketed and critiqued, I'm not interested.
Nerd Girl said…
@ Liz - back to add that none of this is directed toward you. I realize I sound harsh in my comments - that was not my intention at all.
BBJ said…
I haven't read it, not planning to see the movie. Some of it is what you wrote. Another part is that I realized, after reading "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" that I was completely burned out on books about the redemptive relationship between saintly/sassy black domestic workers and white women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or those women's children. And I knew that if I heard another person say 'she was just like a mother to me, and I don't know her last name or what happened to her', I was going to smack someone.

Now, as a white woman often saying this to other white women, I get a certain amount of guilting about it. I'm supposed to love these stories, according to some, because they are redemptive and heartwrenching, and because rejecting them is seen as rejecting the writer in need, and all the other women out there who need someone to validate their story about how much they loved their mother's employees.

To heck with it. I'm not in the validation business, and I don't see what is so special about these women that they need my support. If I'm going to read stories about racism that churn my gut, I'd like to read them without being encouraged to identify with the perpetrators thereof. As a lot of people have pointed out, there are truly great novels that tell the story of black women in the South without this sort of saccharine intermediary figure.

I think that some of the pressure on me from certain friends is because they do identify with the white women in these stories. They're working out guilt, attachment, all sorts of things, and the idea that someone can say 'this isn't my story, it doesn't relate to me, and I'm not eager to relate to it' upsets them.

Weird dynamics.
nick said…
I haven't read the book and haven't seen the film. I know very little about the South either now or then, but I sure as hell wouldn't trust a middle-class white woman to tell me the truth about the experience of black people.
Liz Dwyer said…
Nerd Girl,
I am on my grind here at work but sister, you know I don't think you're harsh. And if folks think I'm full of it, call me on it.

Will write more when I'm done writing for the j-o-b.
Unknown said…
HAHA LIZ, my post on this subject matter is almost exactly the same!!! LOL.

i included a clip you MUST see ... Viola saying why she almost refused the role. My take is ole girl really needed the money and I don't blame her for that. I became a little ill simply watching the clip to be honest.

here's the clip if you're up for it:

I LOVE Viola and am truly waiting for HOLLYWOOD to give her a man and a REALLY good sexy ROLE.

Seriously, 35 years later and all we can play is Kizzy, The Help, and crazed crack-heads??? I'm done.
Matt said…
My wife and I went to the movie on opening night without really knowing anything about it. We watched the preview before we left the house, and my only comment was that it must have been edited by a caucasian because the edits made the Gospel choir appear to be clapping on beats 1 and 3 (which as a musician I find to be extremely offensive... lol).

When we arrived at the theater, the lack of diversity made me fear that we were about to see a "White Messiah" movie, and unfortunately that's exactly what it is.
Faith said…
I'd love to see paternalistic whites claim something that denigrated them as 'just a book'! How insulting when other people insist on erasing you. Self-hating African Americans are also culpable. It really is pathetic how Viola Davis twists herself to justify accepting such a role. It's just as much the denigration of black women by blacks that has caused this desperation and dearth of roles [the lack of infrastructure across the board]. There's no excuse for it though. People can create their own indie projects, but they want to have it 'easier' and rely on others to hire them. Black women have a collective wealth of more than $1 Trillion dollars but do NOT utilize it in ways that benefit them. Hollywood will continue these 'white women savior' movies as long as Michelle Obama is First Lady.
Toni Campbell said…
I agree with everything you've said. Someone asked me recently why I haven't read The Help. I told them that as a bookseller in a large store in the South, every day for the last 2 years of my life I have had older white women tell me that I must read it. And that is the quickest way to get me to NOT read it. I would just smile and nod and tell them I'm not interested.
I did go see the movie, though, and I can see why people really connected to the story, but it didn't sit well with me.
Doodling said…
Posts like this are the reason I'm giving away my copy of The Help, and categorically refuse to see the movie, over my mom's objections. Quiet racism is still racism.

You go, Los Angelista. :)
Anonymous said…
I will say I loved the book and liked the movie. And while I am white I have quite a few family members who are not and I am completely offended by the idea that liking this book or movie is somehow my ok on racism. It is not nor do I believe this book to be racist. Anyone who thinks that this work is a complete historical account of what it was like to live in that time is an idiot. Not necessarily a racist, but for sure an idiot. If writers cannot write works of fiction about periods in history the world is becoming a terrible place. Instead of squashing FICTION you should be encouraging people to continue reading about a time in history that currently has their attention. Rather than telling them they are racist for enjoying FICTION.
Jeremy said…
Wait - there's really The Help products on HSN?

I saw the movie this weekend (no, didn't buy a ticket) and it was off. Something was off and just not right, but couldn't place my finger on it.

But I'm still wrapping my head around the HSN products.
sherri said…
On this one I have to disagree with you. I come from a long line of Black women that were "the help". My mother's first job was when she was 11 and it was watching a white women's children. She worked for that family on weekends and breaks on until she went to college. My grandmother was the help too and probably her mother before her.

In my opinion, those relationships were complex. Not relationships based on equality, but on something that my life experience hasn't allowed me to understand. Sometimes fondness, sometimes disgust... I doubt they know exactly how to characterize it either. It was a part of life. Mrs Hamilton attended my grandmother's funeral and cried like a baby. She helped my mother move to california when she was 20. My mother's taste in fine clothing, shoes and home decor can be traced to that woman. Her desire for more opportunity and a better stadard of living came from those experiences too.

I read the book and enjoyed it. I thought she captured voices familiar to me. Personally, I've never understand why my aunts kept in touch with those families. Or why those kids still call them on holidays. But you know, that's not my story. It's their story. And Stockett's story. Black people don't have a lock on that part of our history.
Anonymous said…
I agree with you especially on this statement:
"I also admitted that it makes me angry that "on the one hand, people say if black women don't like The Help, we should write our own stories--all while failing to recognize that there are PLENTY of black writers who DO write books and screenplays about our experiences, but because of racism in the publishing and film industries, their work NEVER gets the time of day. Unless, of course, they make the main character a white woman and it's her fabulous coming of age story/mission trip."

It's sad. I remember in English class during my collegiate years, one of our classmates who was considered White was talking about a Toni Morrison book we were required to read for the class and she told our professor in front of our class which consisted of two Black girls and this one White girl. "I just am so tired of having to read another book that's about slavery and sadness and it's depressing..."



She went there.

Well you know if it's depressing for her as a White person to READ it how do you think the Black people who LIVED and STILL experience the EFFECTS of it TODAY in 2011 feel?

baiskeli said…
Now you too can imagine yourself in those fabulous segregationist times

Home Shopping Network's "The Help" collection

I just have no words! I watched the movie against my better judgement, and it really is bad.
The reactions to this film have been as predictable as day following night. Broadly speaking white people like it (Oh its the best movie, and funny, I recommend it wholeheartedly) and black people curse under their breath “not another DAMN mammy film again”.

The fact that the majority of African Americans feel uncomfortable with the "The Help" whilst the vast majority of white Americans LOVE it (calling for an Oscar and describing it funny, witty etc) shows the reality of race relations in America couldn't be more different from the rosy veneer that the Obama presidency would have us believe.

Lets be clear, simply liking a film does not make you a racist. BUT, fawning over it and saying its the best movie you have seen, funny, witty etc and FAILING to notice the repetition of the same old tired stereotypes and themes DOES suggest that you are perhaps too “comfortable” (and thus not challenging enough) of those images and the status quo.That unfortunately DOES make you complicit in maintaining the veneer of living in a “post racial” world despite the glaring inequalities (if you care to look) that still exist.

The book (and the movie) "The Help" is nothing more than a self congratulatory, patronising (and possibly misandric) work of fiction that tells us nothing new, other than panders to old stereotypes.

A movie purportedly about racism afflicting an oppressed community, but actually about the experience of the affluent white person defending that community. “To Kill a Mocking bird”, “Cry Freedom.” “Mississippi Burning.”, “The blind Side” the list goes on, and noe The Help.

Don't get me wrong, I fully expect "The Help" to receive at the very least, an Oscar nomination or similar accolade. We've been down this road sooo many times before.

To see why white people tend to like these films see these links:

You will find a few eye openers there that may help take off the blinkers most of us have on, when we choose to fail to see what is happening around us.

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