If you take any black woman age 25 and older, chances are her mother, grandmother, or aunt, was once a maid. In my own family, my maternal and paternal grandmothers were domestics. Incidentally, I hate the term “domestic.” It makes one sound like they’ve been housebroken.
Nevertheless, being a maid was a natural course of life for many black women in the age of (and before) the Civil Rights era. But, their stories aren’t usually fodder for big-time Hollywood films. Then again, any black experience on screen is a cause for celebration if you take into account the limited number of films for and about blacks opening in theaters.
In the simply titled, The Help, Ms. Eugenia “Skeeter” (played by Emma Stone in an awesomely bad wig) decides to write about the lives of “the help” in Jackson, Mississippi.
It’s also a commentary on all women, black and white, in the early 1960s, from how they dressed, to how they spoke, to their social mores. It is a true look at female relationships.
But, I have a bone to pick with the film and its overall appeal. As an example: while I was standing in line to see The Help last weekend, I overheard an older white woman describing the back story of how Kathryn Stockett, author of the book The Help, from which the movie is adapted, sold the film rights to her unpublished manuscript to her friend Tate Taylor. Taylor went on to write the adapted screenplay and direct the film.
When asked who were the “A-list stars” in the film, the older, white woman replied, “Um, Emma Stone.” Emma Stone. Not Viola Davis (Aibileen), who has been nominated for an Academy Award. Not Cicely Tyson (Constantine), who has won multiple Emmys and been nominated for an Academy Award. Not Sissy Spacek (Missus Walters), a veteran actress with an Academy Award. And, not Bryce Dallace Howard (Hilly), who gives a rousing performance as a hateful, mean-spirited southern belle.
My point? Just because we have a black man as president, doesn’t mean that prejudice no longer exists. Having that woman mention Stone over the indomitable Davis, alone, was the equivalent of a white person saying, “I have friends who are black.” Who is she kidding?
Furthermore, I am wondering if The Help would have gotten such wide appeal had it been written by a black woman. In this story, the black maids tell their stories of being treated as second class citizens – slaves when they have their freedom – and smiling through it all. It also shines a light on how white, society women let other white, society women govern their lives.
Now, I’m not knocking the fact that Skeeter took the chance of writing their stories, especially in the Jim Crow South. I think it shows Skeeter’s willingness to accept people for who they are. Jessica Chastain’s Celia is also one of those lovable characters.
Even though Stockett and Taylor have seemingly captured a time fraught with anguish for blacks, I still wish that I could have seen more of Aibileen and Minny’s (Octavia Spencer) stories. Both Davis and Spencer make this film. Their characters are strong black women with a good natured sensibility. In fact, these two best friends are whole representations of real women. Most black women are never fully realized on the big screen, unless their story is penned by a black person.
I’m not giving The Help a bad review. For all intents and purposes, it’s a great film that looks at how women relate to one another. The female focus is quite strong. The story has its own sense of humor, despite the raw nerve it is obviously striking with its very existence. It makes me thankful that I live in an era where there are many opportunities for blacks to ascend, when there were few in the 1960s. I am a huge fan of Davis and Spencer.
However, as a descendent of “the help,” I am conflicted in my emotions about a film where the white girl saves the day for two strong black women.
Kimberly Grant may be reached at KAliciaG@aol.com or www.facebook.com/fashgirl83.