Professor Melissa Harris-Perry calls ‘The Help’ movie “ahistorical and deeply troubling”

The Help a new movie starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone hits theatres this week and it’s already creating a bit of controversy. Set in Mississippi in 1963, The Help is story of domestic workers but the revision of American history in the movie has caused a deep sense of frustration among historians, feminists, and anyone who knows that Mississippi in the 1960s wasn’t all gossip and giggles.

Yesterday, Tulane University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry went to see the movie The Help. She live-tweeted her impressions of the movie and last night on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell she gave her review of the movie.

In the clip below Harris-Perry is able to eloquently break down why The Help is damaging in that it completely distorts American history and at worst rewrites it to whitewash just how horrible it really was for black women in the south at that time. Harris-Perry argues the movie makes it seem like “Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi” when in reality for black women, “it was rape, it was lynching, it was the burning of communities” that were the unspeakable realities they survived.

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20 Comments

  1. Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I read the book and I did not feel like the story was out of historical context. So if you are commenting on the movie, have you read the book? Is the movie changed to fit a narrative or do you have a problem with the book as well. I teach social studies and I felt the book did not try to gloss over the horrors or injustices of the time period.

  2. Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    damn my local paper gave it 3.5 out or 4 stars.

  3. Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what Melissa Harris-Perry would say to Viola Davis about her role in the movie…how she felt that she was channeling her mother, who was a domestic during that time period, and that she felt she was giving her a voice.

    I’m not defending the movie one way or another (though I have read the book), I am more curious if anything. The book definitely ignores major political, social and cultural themes of that time, but frankly, I didn’t expect it to pay attention to them. It was fiction – not even really historical fiction, but a beach read at best. I understand that there is a responsibility to not erase or disregard history, but I don’t know if a fiction movie or novel has that responsibility? I don’t have the answer, but I think it is an interesting topic.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/11/viola-davis-on-the-help-my-mom_n_924127.html

    • Posted August 14, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Hm, perhaps Viola is contractually obligated, *in the course of promoting said movie,* to speak positively about it?

      Perhaps Ms. Davis and Ms. Harris-Perry merely disagree?

      Perhaps Ms. Davis agrees with Ms. Harris-Perry, but made a choice years ago when she decided to be an actress?

      How does the fact that Ms. Davis defends the movie detract from Ms. Harris-Perry’s points?

  4. Posted August 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    While I have some misgivings about the book, I haven’t seen the movie yet. I take issue with the author writing in “dialect” for each of the maids’ points of view, among other things. But I think rather than saying something is “ahistorical” (which I would interpret to mean factually inaccurate), you could just say something like, “it didn’t tell the whole story.” And since the book was written by a white woman raised by her black maid, I’m not surprised that it didn’t capture the full reality of black womens’ experiences at that time. Should she not have written the book though? I don’t know.

    P.S. Nothing is more annoying than an actress with a terrible fake Southern accent!

    • Posted August 12, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      How about an actress with a fake British accent? *shudder*

  5. Posted August 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    While I absolutely do not disagree with Harris-Perry’s analysis, it is pretty clear that this film is merely a symptom of larger systemic problems. Of course this story does not accurately depict the very real violent threats women of colors faced at the time, but who could expect it to? It’s historical fiction, created by a privileged white woman’s guilt. A larger problem is that overwhelmingly-white Hollywood is appropriating black women’s stories, and by doing so stealing their voices.

  6. Posted August 11, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    As a writer, I have to say that trying to include everything is daunting and is often done at the expense of the story. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but have read the book. It was written from a particular point of view and by an author with a particular life experience.

    No, it won’t show all the horrors. But then again, if any of us were to write about characters living in New York on 9/11 or even afterward, would we have every single bit of everyone’s experience? you write what your characters experience and few will ever experience everything.

    Novels I’ve read that try to include everything usually feel forced, stilted, and slowed by the weight. At least “The Help” is a start. Isn’t that worth something?

  7. Posted August 11, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Can anyone recommend a similar novel that the community at large doesn’t find so offensive? I read The Help, and liked the story, but I agree that it’s very problematic. I’d really like to read something that tells this story in a different (better?) way.

  8. Posted August 11, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    When E News was showing clips from the red carpet premier and they were interviewing Viola Davis one of the first questions was “How is it to work with the new Hollywood ‘it girl’?” Talking about Emma Stone. WTF. It was embarrasing to watch. The only thing that brought the interview back was when Davis announced she would be adopting and when asked “Where from?” she answered with pride “Domestically!”

  9. Posted August 11, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    While I agree with some of the points that Harris-Perry is making about the book/movie not being representative of the experiences of all black women at that time, I believe that she is also overlooking many of the aspects that led me to enjoy the movie. Of course Aibilene and Minny’s experiences are not the experiences of the majority of the black women in Mississippi at that time, but to me, the movie wasn’t claiming that. It was merely showing the extensive roles that black women fulfilled in the so-called “perfect” lives of the “Real Housewives of Jackson,” as Harris-Perry says. While the housewives seemed so perfect on the outside, in truth their households were run and their children raised by the women whose services they abused. To me, the great message of the movie was Aibilene’s words about raising white children to have loving and caring beliefs, only to have those children grow up to be just like their racist parents, while her own son was back at home being taken care of by someone else. The message I took away from the movie was that despite the horrors of this time period and the terrible things black women (and men) endured, they still managed to hold on to something that enabled them to remain positive and steadfast. Minny still had a clear sense of humor, despite the fact that she was verbally abused by her employers and physically abused by her husband, and Aibilene loved the white children she cared for, although she could have held on to anger toward all whites after her son’s death.
    I understand Harris-Perry’s points about the movie covering up the true struggle of black women at this time, but in all fairness, this movie isn’t about all black women’s struggle at this time. It’s about Skeeter’s experiences with women, white and black alike, and the two drastically different worlds she finds herself caught between.
    If you go to see this, which you should for Viola Davis’ acting skills alone, try to just enjoy it for what it is- a story, not a general depiction of all black women in all Mississippi.

  10. Posted August 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Melissa totally. This movie is what I despise about Hollywood. it’s such a lie, like Mississippi Burning with the noble FBI agents.

  11. Posted August 12, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    So, people aren’t allowed to write fiction which takes place in a particular time period without covering all of the horros of said timer period? The movie is based off a novel. That is all that should need to be understood.

    • Posted August 14, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Yes, people are allowed to write whatever they want to write, and publishers and producers are free to promote perspectives and experiences that make them comfortable/are “more marketable.”

      Are people not allowed to be offended when hundreds of years of history are ignored, and little snippets of an oppressor’s experience are presented from a cute, funny “feel-good” perspective?

      Two people can view the same work differently. That is all that should need to be understood.

  12. Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    Me and my cousin watched the movie and had a great discussion about it. Plus another theme I noticed was about Motherhood.
    -Aibleen is mourning the death of her son and has had found it hard to work and look after white children while her child is being watched over by someone else. She also appears to be the only adult in Little Mae’s life that nurtures, loves her, and teaches her that she is an important person
    -Minny, before sending her teenage daughter off to work, sternly tells her “no sassmouthing.” We saw many of the white, wealthy women act sternly towards their children, in Minny’s case she cares most about her daughter’s survival and job security.
    -Constantine, who had worked for Skeeter’s family, was the only positive female AND adult role model for the young girl way back and told her that she is an intelligent and incredible young woman that will be successful and not to pay attention to people that make her feel ugly.
    -Elizabeth Leefolt, although this may be what TvTropes calls Values Dissonance, seems rather harsh with her little daughter who seems about 2-5 years old. In the tornado scene, she isn’t anywhere near Aibleen and Mae. Seems as though Aibleen and Mae are Whipping Girls after dealing with a domineering and jerkassed husband who treats Aibleen very crappily.
    -Mrs. Phelan, Skeeter’s mother, is mostly intrested in getting her daughter married and molding her into the perfect southern society housewife like she is. She seems to have treated Skeeter as a young girl the way Elizabeth treats Mae. This was lampshaded in a seen where Skeeter was taking notes interviewing Aibleen, who talks about mothers that never make their children feel special and beautiful. Skeeter also is disgusted with how her mother keeps up a facade, bugs her, and later her cowardice. I’d reveal more but that’d require a *SPOILER ALERT*

  13. Posted August 15, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    THe movie is racist and the fact that it got green lighted is just an example of the racist industry. First off, how many more mammy, maid, and slave movies do we really need to see? Is that the only part of black history that’s important? That we were oppressed and uneducated and that the very white folks that oppressed us were the ones that helped us overcome? Really? Much like The Blindside and Freedom Writers, and dangerous minds and any other movie where White women come to the aid of lowly people of color, this film totally smothers us with the fake white liberal ideal. (I’m not saying white liberals are fake. I’m talking about the fake ones tho). Where are the films where black people mobilize THEMSELVES? It happens. In fact, most changes happen by the people doing things themselves. Also, Viola Davis had to “Ugly up” for the role to heighten the contrast between the unattractive black woman against the beautiful slim trim white woman. That dynamic isn’t unusual in hollywood either. Black women are always portrayed as fat and unattractive in movies that have majority white women.

    Also people need to learn that black folks were not happy to be taking care of their kids and did not love these white kids as their own. it was a frickin JOB. So stop pretending that black women loved taking care of white women’s families because we just luhs to care fa peoples chirrens!

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:20 am | Permalink

      This “Ugly Up”? Viola Davis ugly? I beg to differ. Also that and the question when she was in E! reminds me of that famous quote from “The First Wives Club”: There are three ages in Hollywood. Babe. District Attorney. And Driving Miss Daisy.” Seems like women older than 35 no matter how brilliant, beautiful, generous, humorous, or engaging are made to feel like they’re Driving Miss Daisy

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