"The Help Goes International" : Interview with Ida Jones and Andrea Peloso of George Brown College in Toronto, Canada
When I first saw The Help (with a great deal of hope and optimism), I was dismayed by the assumptions that trivialized the l leadership of black women, belittled the severity of life under segregation, and elevated white women as the "liberators". I concerned that my students here in Toronto viewed this as an inspiring film. The Open Statement by the Association of Black Women Historians helped me to find in-roads in discussing this film with my students. I was lucky to have the opportunity to talk to Dr. Ida Jones on her perspective of representation within The Help.
Andrea: Let's talk about the absence of the Civil Rights Movement from The Help.
Ida: I appreciate Women's Studies going into this, and not using racialized gender to separate issues for women of color from the overall woman issue.
Film is art. I as a historian have an issue with The Help because its not contextualized in the time period appropriately. People have said "Oh its just a movie, that is what documentaries are about, we won’t be confused." Actually we have about two and a half to three generations of people who view mass media as legitimate and truthful and won’t take the time to attend a class, for example, or read our open statement.
We've seen that Civil Rights Era generation slowly pass away. We’ve lost a living connection with that era, the people who can say "I remember those times, I remember that experience that happened to me". We are no longer challenging ourselves to remember and have numbed ourselves to that reality of that period of time.
Students who are now in college were born in the 1990s. Wow isn’t that amazing! To them the 1960s almost like the Great Depression or the Civil War to us. Technology has changed so rapidly that it all seems ancient. In the 1960s most people had black and white television sets and no cell phones. Technology has allowed students to separate themselves that time period and the human issues of black poverty, and early gender issues.
In The Help the black domestics gained weight but also wore padding clothing. In contrast, the white women were so extremely thin, but then Celia, who was kind of the outsider was considered trashy in her dress – was different again. So you have a class issue, you are seeing class, race, and gender. The white men were kind of staunch, stiff necked, unconnected people, and the black men were either abusive in shadow, or absent in death. A lot of muted voices. The film was a white woman's coming of age story. To market it as a black woman's story really was disingenuous.
In the context of our current cultural mindset, the lack of balance in the time period, which is explosive, which gave birth to civil rights, did the audience a disservice. Especially a film set in the state of Mississippi, so electrically charged, even to this current day, with their policies and their overt abrogation of civil rights, the film turned a blind eye to these realities.
Andrea: What was the reality the reality for domestic workers at that tim? The characters of Abeliene and Minnie, don't appear much in their own relationships and environments.
Ida: It was a harsh, vertical relationship between the "haves and have nots" also coupled with sexism. Dr. Ida May Holland recounts life in Mississippi as a 12 year old domestic. The wife of the family takes her upstairs and puts her on her husband who rapes her. Ida goes into childhood prostitution, and during the voting rights campaign she follows a white man to the snick office, thinking that she would charge white men more than black men, and ends up getting involved in the civil rights. Fannie Lou Hamer a civil rights leader started picking cotton at age 6. These stories are glimpses into life lived by Black women in the state of Mississippi during the era. Children as young as five had to work to help support their families.
During the Sixties workers went from live in domestics to living out. This new arrangement shifted the mindset: I'm not a piece of property, I'm a free agent who has a service to exchange for pay. Now the mindset changes to "you need me and I'm willing to negotiate on these terms". Dr. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis’s Living In Living Out documents the lives of domestic workers in the Washington, DC area. In the decade of the 1960s America was dealing with student and anti-war unrest coupled with the push for civil rights by African Americans.
People who were used to this vertical relationship were now being forced into a lateral position. The Sixties was a grieving process for most Americans. Young black women did triumph at that time, sending their children to school, themselves getting education, and themselves articulating that pain and frustration in concert with some black men.
Andrea: Hillie is participating in segregation laws, she is also the "bad guy", the most racist character but we don’t see the broader context of the society. Do you agree that her character serves a red herring to the severity of those times?
Ida: The South is a very intimate community, where there is a lot of connections along the lines of family for example the black Johnsons living next to the white Johnsons whose ancestors both fought the Civil War. There is some mixing of blood and some kind of fraternity among these people. The author did talk about it, all these intimate relationships, that's what we see happen. Hillie was the most die in the wool traditionalist, we won't call her a racist, we'll call her a traditionalist or a patriot.
Andrea: I see.
Hillie understands that vertical culture and wants to maintain it, for fear that "they are going to be in our beds, classrooms, and all of a sudden, my daughter is going to be molested by a black man". It always devolves to some sexual threat which is fascinating, because most white Southerners are never the offenders, but that's something different.
When you put people in these clear distinct boxes, the traditionalist, the liberal, we can pick who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, and then see us all as victims because the traditionalist is trying to hold us all under their boot. We lose the historical context.
The film neglected the broader context of people being lynched and raped and murdered, both white and black. Male and female civil rights workers were all in danger. Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a petite Christian mother of five got driven off and murdered in Alabama. When they showed her face on the television news, it was clear that the hate did not just simply target black flesh, it was anyone who went against this vertical relationship. When you see the reality of that history, you think differently. The movie shows us one tribe within the community without the greater context but its more complicated than that.
Minny with the whole cake fiasco, we know that in slavery people did use kinds of foodstuffs to sicken or kill enslaver. But it is graphic without the greater context of to the whole larger blow to the wall of oppression.
Andrea: The film shows many ideas of resistance coming from Skeeter, such as interviews, writing, the toilet prank on Hillie, organizing domestics, and this is Minnie's one featured act of resistance. Offensive in that context, not reflective of the time.
Ida: There could have been some dialogue or narrative to link it together with the larger movement of the time.
Andrea: Minnie's husband who we hear but don’t see: he really is the only living familial black man in the film.
Ida: That's a huge issue because once again we have very stereotypical, repeated characters of black men in films: pimp, brutalizer, preacher, juvenile delinquent. When you have repeated type casts, people in the real world tend to superimpose that identity on anyone who looks like that. So people might start clutching their purses or doing something rather foolish about seeing a character on a screen and superimposing that on somebody else. He was done in shadow, we don't get to see him. We have no back story –who he was, how he met his wife and abuses he might have suffered. He is this mythic persona seemingly married to this very strong, outspoken woman he keeps muzzled so her check can maintain the household. Moreover what is wrong with her because she keeps going back to him? Give some context. It creates a rigid stereotype of relationships between black men and women.
It is unfair because white women are also being brutalized in the household in real life and in the film but the aspect is so muted over, we see hints of economic abuse where the domestic says: "well, I want a raise" and the husband just politely leaves the room. This white woman is a housewife, so she doesn't have any income to give her domestic worker a raise, so whether she gets a stipend from him or what have you.
Andrea: Exploitation of peoples stories is rampant in The Help. As a journalist Skeeter is paid for the information that she is being given by Abeliene. In the real world, Abeliene's human character had her name used without permission or financial compensation. There's an uncritical, acceptance and even celebration of Skeeters payment and exciting future and everyone else's lack of payment. Finally, everyone gets paid, likely pittance, for the book, but only Skeeter gets a new a new job out of it.
Ida: Skeeter's intentions were honorable in the sense that as the protagonist, she needed to rebel, and escape for a more interesting life and this was an avenue where she also felt she could make a difference. Its a proto-feminist coming of age story, and that makes sense, the women's rights movement comes right out of all that.
Does art imitate life or vice versa it is so funny how it overlapped with the reality that this woman also had her brother's domestic using her name and her story. The author is making millions and wouldn't even give this woman any kind of payment, which would be the polite thing to do. This woman who was her brother’s domestic worker has to go to court, and she eventually loses the case.
The new frontier is intellectual property. People cannot create stories so they harvest them and pitch them as their own. Its a very ugly part of human history, especially in a capitalist society such as America. It is salient that the real story and the fictional account overlap.
What was so troublesome for me in the film is that Abeliene says "Now I'm going to be a writer too". Well how realistic is this? Is Skeeter going to help you with getting into the New York Times when she's already pillaged your mind for your stories? I doubt that. Abeliene had the desire to do something different than be a domestic but you never see her on par with Skeeter, she is sub par, and Skeeter is going places.
Then the women were so happy for the crumbs of money that were being tossed at them, really it is amazing to see capitalist culture in America, how we exploit people who don't know what they really have.
Andrea: And how we gloss over the even more important stories, like Civil Rights. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. I feel like we could talk about this movie for hours.
Ida: Laughs, we probably could!
Andrea: Thanks again, and thanks to the Black Women’s Historical Association.