The brilliant Jamia Wilson has a hopeful, inspiring piece about The Help up at GOOD today. Here’s a taste:
I had my doubts about Stockett’s ability to capture the complexities of the racist and sexist systems Southern black women navigated in 1960s. Being the granddaughter of a domestic worker who cooked, cleaned, babysat, and ironed for white families in North Carolina for decades, I had a hard time understanding how a white woman—Stockett or her fictional stand-in, Skeeter—could tell my grandmother’s story.
But my dad seemed relieved that the movie explored some of the real experiences of black domestic workers during Jim Crow, beyond cringe-worthy stock Mammy figures like the ones in Beulah and Gone with the Wind. Dad told me he thought the film was an opportunity to “wake people up and get them to start talking about race more openly.” That was enough to make me buy a ticket.
So I joined a predominately white crowd of East Village moviegoers this week, and I left with mixed emotions. I appreciated the talents of a dynamic cast, but I agreed with critics who accused The Help of glossing over the gristly terrorism that plagued Mississippi during the ‘60s. The movie’s portrayal of racism and the Civil Rights movement pales in comparison to the daily violent realities. I rolled my eyes at the movie’s suggestion that Skeeter rescues “the help” by telling their stories and “giving them voice.” I cringed when Celia empowers her maid, Minnie, to leave her abusive husband by making her fried chicken and telling her to defend herself.
But I confess: I didn’t hate The Help. It has sparked a rare and much-needed public dialogue about race, something very few blockbusters ever do, and has given a platform to a powerful cast of black women actors to showcase their talents, expand their audiences, and possibly snag some Oscar wins.
You should seriously check out the whole piece. Jamia speaks to how I approach pop culture as a feminist. Yes, most of it is super problematic, and this definitely needs to be called out and changed. But when pop art skirts near the issues we care about, even when it gets them wrong, it opens up a space for conversation, a moment full of potential for raising important topics.
The public conversation about The Help has been pretty inspiring. This doesn’t erase what’s problematic about the book/film, but it does show the ability of social justice-minded folks to use the tools available to us, in this case a major film release, to start some real consciousness raising.