'The Help' leaves her longing for a more authentic story

Duchess Harris
Duchess Harris, Ph.D; J.D., is an associate professor of American Studies at Macalester College, and an adjunct professor of Race and the Law at William Mitchell College of Law. She is the author of "Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Obama," and co-editor with Bruce D. Baum of "Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity."
Photo courtesy of Duchess Harris

I had said I would not see the movie, "The Help." I made that decision on two grounds:

Ablene Cooper, who sued author Kathryn Stockett for a mere $75,000 for taking her story as the basis for her character Aibileen, had her lawsuit dismissed because of an elapsed statute of limitations.

Not only did the movie earn $50 million in the first two weeks, there is a Home Shopping Network line of products that Cooper will not profit from.

I did not want to participate in increasing Stockett's wealth, but I have been offered so many speaking engagements to discuss the movie, since reviewing the novel, that I felt compelled.

I can see why people might have enjoyed "The Help." It is a feel-good movie with an all-star cast, including Sissy Spacek. A charming Emma Stone plays the well- intentioned protagonist, "Skeeter." She is a young Southern white woman who wants to write about the "colored" housekeepers of Mississippi. She claims that Margaret Mitchell glorified the Mammy figure; no one asked Mammy how she felt.

We are led to believe that because Skeeter asks Aibileen, the black maid, how she feels, she is not implicated in Aibileen's segregated reality. We learn, however, that Skeeter's mother is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and that her boyfriend is a segregationist. These facts are not explained. Decent music and "Mad Men" fashion seduce us into enjoying the plot.

We are not expected to question that the story is set in a Klan-less 1963 Mississippi. There is no context for Gov. Ross Barnett, no illustration of the real-life violence of the White Citizens Council and no explanation of the heroic life of Medgar Evers. In fact, the only black male characters in the movie are the preacher and Minnie's faceless husband, "Leroy," who beats her.

This story is a Southern segregation fiction that erases the unwanted advances of the powerful white men of Jackson. There is no allusion to this, and if you are the age of an incoming first-year college student, you might not think to ask why there aren't any lighter-skinned blacks in the movie who look oddly enough like the mayor. Minnie is our nation's Nafissatou Diallo, and neither one of them got any help.

The idea that poor white-trash Celia would have befriended her black maid is absurd. History tells us that impoverished whites would have behaved worse than the wealthy Hilly, who is brilliantly played by Bryce Dallas Howard. The problem with this character is that Hilly is depicted as an aberration, as opposed to the norm. This also glosses over the real-life terror experienced by black women at the hands of white women during this time period.

The only recourse that black women have in this movie is to cook with their own feces and "sass" the women who can hire, fire and incarcerate them.

Even though Aibileen's closing line expresses satisfaction that she had the opportunity to share how it felt to be her, I left wanting to read Aibileen's own book or screenplay. In that version Cicely Tyson would have been more than a backdrop, Viola Davis would have been the lead actress and Octavia Spencer could liberate Aunt Jemima without baking that particular kind of chocolate pie.

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Duchess Harris is an associate professor of American studies at Macalester College and an adjunct professor of race and the law at William Mitchell College of Law. She is the author of "Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Obama."

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