Quick Hit: Jamia Wilson on the upside of The Help

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted August 23, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I actually found this to be a pretty ridiculous piece and I was hoping to like it. I really hate when people look at one movie or film from such a micro perspective. For me, not seeing the movie had very little to do with the story in itself. I’m sure it was a good movie that was heart warming with a good story. My issue is in the macro perspective. Not just this movie, but the constant images of oppressed black people. I can’t watch any more slave, maid, mammy etc… films. I feel like it minimizes our role in the world as Blacks and African Americans. Where are the stories of the black doctors and lawyers and kings and queens of Africa. Why does our history always start off with slaves and servants when that’s not our only legacy? Why must we constantly see oppressed images that only overcome oppression by the goodwill or aid of a white person? And in a world of infinite stories to tell, why are these the same dynamics that we see continually?

  2. Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    It it isn’t just all about her POV. It’s about many peoples’ POV, especially those who don’t ponder about gender, race, class, and sexuality.
    Look I watched it with my cousin and we had a great discussion before and after we saw the movie. I explained many of the misgivings many critics and viewers have and she just chose to stay optimistic. She doesn’t usually think things out with complications and stated that if we want to stop the images shown in the media that are offensive, that we should stop viewing the stuff that offends us so much. After the movie, we talked about how many of the things that happen to Aibleen and Minnie still happen today, but mostly with Hispanics. We talked about the anti-immigrant sentiment that is so rampant in politics. We discussed the Mother and Child issues in the film. She also replied that she was glad that not all caucasion people were horribly racist to people of color. She just sees the best in things, I can be extremely optimistic and pessimistic or a mushy middle. It means different things to different people. Don’t write anybody off and this film is causing more conversation than before

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