Can “The Help” Change Oscar’s Mind on Black Women in the White Imagination?

by: Johnathan Fields  

“Portraying African-American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and hot mommas helps justify U.S. Black women’s oppression.” – Patricia Hill-Collins, “Black Feminist Thought”

As last summer curbed to an end, my girl — a fellow cultural critic– April Scissors and I sat in a Lincoln Park movie theatre revved up and ready to analyze Tate Taylor’s not yet released The Help. Despite the controversy some critics took with the author, Kathryn Stockett’s, choice of vernacular or the lawsuit her family’s former maid, Ablene Cooper, is bringing against her, I tried walking into a pre-screening of this film with an open mind. Fast forward several months later as the film’s leading Black actresses are up for Academy Awards nominations. Was I supposed to be surprised?

As cinematic culture shifts further into another era of popularity for interracial narratives, I couldn’t help but worry this would be yet another “white savior” film. You know, a person of color –or the community in entirety– is portrayed as disparaged and desperate. Enter: the white character. Through an intimate relationship, the white character is able to guide the other character(s) into the status quo (read: eurocentrism), thus saving them from what would otherwise be a “horrible” life. Right? The reservations I had going into this screening were the sentiments I had before finally deciding to watch The Blind Side. After all the success and Academy attention The Blind Side received, did you really think studio executives weren’t going to cash in on it?

Where The Blind Side has a white woman “saving” one Black man, The Help picked up where it left off — having a white woman “helping” a group of Black women. It probably doesn’t help that I have already been exploring Black women in Hollywood and their relationship to the domestic trope. Between re-reading the first few chapters of Donald Bogle’s “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films” and catching the previews of Sanaa Lathan’s performance in Lynn Nottage’s “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark”, I have been trying to understand America’s fascination with the maid/domestic narrative as it relates to Black women. What is it about seeing a Black woman play “the help” that keeps the images timelessly digestible and resurfacing? Regardless of how long it has been, the trope has never worn out although it has transformed.

From Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind to Jessie Nelson’s Corrina, Corrina and now Tate Taylor’s directorial debut with The Help, we’ve gone through decades of familiar narratives being told on screen. Corrina, Corrina holds significant weight since Whoopi Goldberg, one of few Black women to have ever been nominated for an Academy Award, plays the main character. Goldberg, who won an Oscar for her role in Ghost, plays savior to a white couple’s tragic relationship. Only one Black woman has ever won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role—Halle Berry in 2001’s Monsters Ball, where the sexualization of Berry’s character is cause for concern. Had Berry not played any other role worthy of an Oscar nomination outside of having to strip down and engage in a sex scene? All of these “winning” roles have arguably catered to the white supremacist imagination of Hollywood. This begs the question: what makes The Help any different?

I understood the film’s implicit acknowledgment that without Black women, these white women would have accomplished little to nothing. Black women nurtured the self-esteem of white children and allowed them to grow up with a stronger sense of confidence, a confidence that will then be attributed to their parents. In several scenes, Aibileen (Viola Davis) is seen telling the child she cares for, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” In a cultural moment where attacks are being made on the legitimacy of Black mothers and imagery of the “welfare queen” continues to permeate society, The Help tries to highlight how white supremacy takes some Black women from their own children to tend to white children, or to work for ridiculous wages in an area far from home. It shows the negligence on the part of white families. To me, it put accountability into the hands of white folks; unfortunately, never blatantly using the buzzwords people don’t like to hear–racism and white supremacy. Yet this imagery serves as a vehicle to carry yet another popular stereotype of Black women: the superwoman or the “strong Black woman.” This stereotype suggests Black women are capable of handling anything that comes their way, including racism and sexism. It does nothing to challenge the power structures constantly placing her under surveillance and scrutiny.

While The Help does very little to challenge the racial status quo of Hollywood, it does have some relatively shining moments. I appreciated the white leading character, Skeeter (Emma Stone), approaching the topic of cultural appropriation with some understanding and sensitivity, albeit problematic. There is a scene where Minnie (Octavia Spencer) is brought into the plan to share “the help’s” stories. Minnie questions Skeeter’s intentions and audiences have the potential to see a white character examining what her whiteness means and how it operates. This does not mean the film had flawless scenes, but one could at least see the racial consciousness that had been built within Skeeter by interacting and developing an intimate relationship with Aibileen and Minnie. Skeeter’s development throughout the film forces other white characters to reflect on the ways in which certain actions reinforce beliefs in white supremacy.

In one scene, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the uptight, self-loathing troublemaker, addresses “the help” as liars and thieves. Oddly enough, the book Aibileen, Minnie and Skeeter are working on becomes a tell-all for all of the intimate lies the white women of Jackson, Mississippi tell regularly. Their book will attempt to reverse the gaze. Scenes such as these illustrate the contradictions of the white supremacist imagination. While Hilly painted these Black women as untrustworthy, she was the one lying all along. Duh moment, right? However, her white skin gave her a legitimacy the Black characters were not afforded. White privilege.

The awards Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer may leave with on Sunday will frustrate some; it will please others.  Some will ask why there aren’t many movies where Black men and women save the day, where Black folks save Black communities. It will please others because Viola’s win will make her only the second woman of African descent to win Best Actress in over a century of cinema. Octavia Spencer’s win would make her only the fifth woman of African descent to win Best Supporting Actress. Others will be pleased because it is a familiar narrative, where the morality of white folks is restored and they don’t have to feel bad about themselves. This is what Hollywood does. It distracts us from reality and creates illusions. The illusion being that white people shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable as we unpack the contradictions of our histories.

As I return to reading Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America as she unpacks the stereotypes haunting Black women and the political ramifications they have, I hope whatever happens on Sunday inspires folks to self-reflect. I hope people self-reflect, not only on the historical significance and inaccuracies of The Help, but in acknowledging that racial tensions prevail in our society. I hope it will make us ask questions about our fascination with Black women as domestics and the historical and current political implications it has.

I often find myself questioning if we are in the Brown v. Board era of cinema. By that I mean that just because nine Black individuals were allowed into the school that is Hollywood, it doesn’t mean we don’t have much work to do.

What’s your take? Will Oscar be going home with Viola and/or Octavia? See for yourself. The 84th Annual Academy Awards air Sunday, February 26th, 2012 at 6pm CST on ABC.

Johnathan Fields (@JohnnyGolightly) is a graduate student in Media & Cinema Studies. With a bachelors degree in African & Black Diaspora Studies and Philosophy, his areas of interest include: aesthetics, media representations of race, gender, and sexuality in popular culture, Diasporic literature & critical race and feminist theories. He is a guest contributor for “In Our Words,” as well as “The Intersection of Madness & Reality.” His philosophy follows that of Pierre Delacroix: If you’re gonna feed the idiotbox, at least do it with some consciousness.

7 responses to “Can “The Help” Change Oscar’s Mind on Black Women in the White Imagination?

  1. This was an excellent read. As an undergrad double major in african diaspora studies and media production & theory, I understand exactly where you are coming from. I am one of those people who are less than pleased with “white savior” movies. I am not disgusted by the roles that black women and men in hollywood play in them, but I am disgusted by the amount of recognition and praise these films receive each and every time a new one is released. Is this the only way to make it as a black actor/actress in hollywood? Play into the same roles hollywood has been force feeding us?

  2. Perfect analysis, and one I agree with completely. I would also add that, for me, while the domestic worker trope is problematic for all the reasons you discuss above, I tend to agree more with the critiques about how the film “whitewashes the Civil Rights movement” (which you also certainly point to). I teach Media Literacy at the U of MN (after graduating from Comm at DePaul!), and had my students read this article about the film Most of the students came to understand how this film does nothing to, as you importantly note, actually name white supremacy and racism.

    (Also, double that shout-out to the amazing April Scissors! <3)

  3. This was a fantastic article but I do wanna play Devil’s advocate here.

    If white people not help African-American people during this time frame, why is it wrong to make a movie about it?

    We have seen a majority helps the minority, we can look back to America’s start for this.

    This movie didn’t say that African Americans couldn’t do anything for themeselves, it was discussing the hardship of the time the movie was set in. The women in this film were portrayed as strong, each having their own difficulty.

    In The Blind Side, yes, a wealthy white (Republican) family helped a struggling black man, but it happened in real life are you upset as well that this family did what they did?

    Just something to think about. While I don’t agree, I do see your point of view.

  4. Thank you to everyone for the comments! Sidney, I don’t think a moral assessment was made on this film’s production. However, I do think its popularity and “success” need to be called into question. Why are similarly themed films always contenders for awards? This is a pattern. Why doesn’t the public know who comprises the Academy? This is suspicious. More problematically, this idea that white people (or the majority) were in large part running around uplifting marginalized communities is a myth. These communities uplifted themselves, albeit with support from SOME external support. Black folks of the Civil Rights era were being mobilized and politicized by other Black and African-descended folks. Why do these stories not receive acclaim in society and all awards ceremonies? This is an important question. As far as The Blind Side is concerned, criticism and frustration should not be read as anger. However, the film (which as the article addresses, is not reality) falls into this same “white savior” canon.

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