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Enough Already with Trashing ‘The Help!’

This is a film worthy of our praise. So why are black folks hating, as usual?

Veteran actress Cicely Tyson in a scene from The Help

Actress Cicely Tyson in 'The Help'

What Davis, Spencer, and every Black actor in this film (including Cicely Tyson) does, is uplift the viewer with characters who carry themselves with dignity and go about their work with pride despite a “Godless” Jim Crow system constructed to deny them all shreds of either. I understand why we have a guttural reaction to such themes. It’s why I couldn’t get into the book. We’ve been there, done that, and eaten more than enough popcorn at films that revisit that nightmarish era, showcasing our stories of abuse, indignity, and lack of everything—opportunity, education, wealth, parity.

Which is why some folks are just mad that this film was made at all. Why, with all of the great stories we have yet to tell on film, are we revisiting this old mill yet again? Why, with the ongoing dearth of meaty roles for Black actors, are our best and brightest still relegated to singing the same old songs? Why, in the era of the nation’s first Black president, is “the summers’ feel good hit” about Black maids in Jackson, Mississippi? Who can feel good about that?

Well, the all-Black audience in the theater I was in, for starters. And First Lady Michelle Obama, who hosted a special screening of The Help at the White House. Why? Because the film is about sisterhood. It’s about average people—not the handful of names captured in history books, but the countless unnamed hardworking, striving folks—who harnessed the courage to commit the countless quiet acts of defiance that enable her to live on Pennsylvania Avenue and me to sit in an office on 5th Avenue in New York and write this blog today. It’s about the triumph of right over wrong; justice over injustice; humanity over wretchedness; the oppressed over the oppressor. That’s what all the clapping was about!

Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in a scene from 'The Help'

Spencer and Davis keep their eyes on the prize with 'The Help'

We paid $11 to see a feature film, not a documentary (like the hallmark civil rights series Eyes on the Prize, which journalist Nelson George compared The Help to in a lengthy analysis in Sunday’s New York Times). Any such comparisons are simply unfair. Unlike a documentary, designed to educate and inform, The Help is clearly designed to entertain, to distract, to transport viewers to another time and place—a fictional one. It does that.

The best movies also uplift. Even films designed to thrill, shock, amuse, amaze or scare the crap out of you, become something bigger, better and more memorable if they transcend all that and leave you feeling inspired. The Help does that, too. For $11, that’s all you can hope for, and it’s more than we often get at the movies these days.

If you read the book and saw the movie and simply felt (like many of my friends did) that the book was better, I get it. I have yet to see a movie that surpasses the book on which it was based. Such is the nature of literature, which is why we need to get our children to read more and watch screens of all kinds and sizes less. But that’s another issue…

If you saw the movie and are now grinding an axe that has nothing to do with comparisons to the book or—worse—if you have decided not to see the movie simply because of what you’ve heard or read, see it. Then, let’s talk. We spend so much time nurturing our anger and shame; we should be the proudest people on earth, given all that we’ve endured. This movie, if you allow it to, makes you feel proud.

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ACROSS THE WEB
  • Elie V. Parker

    For Over a Century, the Movie Industry has Stereotyped Blacks

    The media have used their communication power to portray Blacks in a negative way. Take for example the movie industry. For over a century, they have portrayed Blacks as weak, frightened, stupid, lazy and illiterate. You only have to look at the countless movies, TV shows, news programs and commercials to confirm this problem. The media started early with shows presenting Blacks in subordinate positions such as maids, butlers and chauffeurs. The early shows included ‘The Jack Benny Show’ with its Black butler. This set the stereotype for Blacks on TV and in the movies. The trend continued with the movie ‘Gone With the Wind’ and its slap-able Black maid, and who could ever forget ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ with its Black chauffeur at the wheel. Blacks are seldom shown as presidents, captains, scientist and lawyers. Blacks are most often shown as buffoons and clowns, many unable to speak well and often illiterate, weak, afraid and cowardly. This stereotype has left negative impressions in the minds of everyone who has come into contact with the movie and TV industry.

    Blacks need to build media companies that will present them in positive roles and leadership positions. The current media that shows Blacks in negative roles in the motives, on television, in advertising must be replaced.

    Source: “No Excuses – A Guide Out of Poverty” found on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com and Createspace.com/3656573 by Elie V. Parker

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      I have not seen “The Help” yet, so I can’t weigh in on the quality of the film and the performances of the actors, and the book the film is based upon is not likely to end up on my reading list. I don’t think anyone would argue that Hollywood has done enough to create quality, diverse roles for Black actors, much less opportunities to call the shots whether as studio executives or as heads of media companies (Tyler Perry being among the few exceptions to the rule). However, the statement that “Blacks are seldom shown as presidents, captains, scientists and lawyers” on film and TV took me aback. Are you kidding me? With all due respect Ms. Parker, I invite you to the 21st century. The age of black actors being relegated to butler, chauffeur and domestic film roles has long passed, primarily because most films are set in the present or the future, not the past. Morgan Freeman, the actor who played the chauffeur in “Driving Miss Daisy,” has in fact played the President of the United States (in the film “Deep Impact”) as well as the role of God himself (“Bruce Almighty,” “Evan Almighty”). Other black actors who have played U.S. Presidents in film and television include Dennis Haysbert (“24″), James Earl Jones (“The Man”), Chris Rock (“Head of State”), Terry Crews (“Idiocracy”) and Tommy “Tiny” Lister (“The Fifth Element”). Black actors in the roles of lawyer, entrepreneur, doctor, scientist, coach, detective, captain, general, CEO, etc. are far more common than you seem to recognize. Is it enough? No, it is not. But we have come far enough for black actors to not have to reject the role of a domestic solely out of the fear of being stereotyped and/or typecast.

  • Gail Evans

    I LOVED THE MOVIE THE HELP. I READ THE BOOK AND COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN,LOVED IT. I WAS GLAD I READ THE BOOK FRIST. SO DETAIL THAT MADE ME UNDERSTAND EACH PERSON, PERSONALLY, THE PART THEY PLAY. A MUST SEE.

  • Sayo Martin

    This perspective is so on point and all that I’ve been trying to say over the past few weeks. Out of disclosure, I work for TakePart (a subsidiary of the production company that produced the Film – Participant Media), but I read the book long before I knew that the company would be making a film out of it. Did they do it justice? I was an English major, so I can always nitpick at adaptations, but this one just touched a bone in me forcing me to applaud. In a society where there is alot of fluff being put on screen, its nice to see a compelling story raising eyebrows, questions and stirring much needed dialogue and debate. And yes, its about women!! To say the least, I can’t wait for Oscar season!

  • Elie V. Parker

    The more we show Blacks as “The Help” the more Blacks will need help.

    Elie V. Parker

  • Bev

    Loved the movie and the book. Let’s celebrate the strong Oscar worthy performances put forth by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. They portrayed the strong, dignified, righteous women of the 60′s whose shoulders we stand on today. OK, maybe they were just house servants and yea, maybe they didn’t speak proper English. The lesson here is that they stood up for what they believed in and, in their own small way, changed the course of race relations in this country.

  • GirlTD

    I loved the book and enjoyed the movie. I agree with you about nurturing shame instead of the awe we should have for the generations before us and how far we’ve come. While I do agree that books usually are better than the film, I have to say that there were some major things in the book that were given just a quick mention onscreen, which would probably completely change peoples perceptions of these characters. What I loved about this story was the depth of friendship amongst these women that is sorely missing from the media today. Bravo for The Help

  • James Nelson

    Sorry, I’m a bit tired of seeing blacks in these types of roles, where at the end the white characters realize all their dreams, and the audience is left wondering (if they even think, or care at all) what happened to the black characters? What happened to those people after the fade to black? I know the playing field becomes a bit shaky when we get to do historicals, but honestly is that the palette of characters we get to play if any film is set more than 40 years ago? I don’t consider it “hating as black folk do” to voice the opinion that we want more substantial roles. How about a black protagonist that has a dream and doesn’t need a white person to cajole them into achieving it for a chance? I can no longer subscribe to the misguided notion they need to support “anything and everything” that Hollywood tosses our way that has black performances to show that we buy movie tickets and in hopes that they’ll give us more meaty roles. Enough time has passed to show that that particular strategy does not work.