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the help cast

Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Bryce Dallas Howard

The movie, The Help, has received accolades from across the Hollywood spectrum. Heralded as the most popular film of 2011, it's been recognized by the NAACP Image Awards, The Golden Globe, The Hollywood Film Festival, The Screen Actors Guild, The People's Choice, and the Academy Awards - with millions scheduled to tune in this weekend to see if it picks up any Oscars.

But before all of those accolades started rolling in, there was evidence the cast had concerns over how the film would be received, particularly by the black community.

Early on, in anticipation of potential African-American backlash over yet another major studio offering that puts the heroic deeds of a white person at the center of a civil rights-era story, both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (pictured here) put out statements in an article entitled, "Why You Should See "The Help" in the August 8/15, 2011 edition of Jet Magazine.

Addressing Jet's overwhelmingly African-American readership, the actresses wrote:

Viola Davis: “If you protest ‘The Help’ and don’t want to see it onscreen, then you will see nothing. It will be replaced by nothing. If you don’t see it you are giving a very strong message to Hollywood because it is a predominantly African-American cast in a project released by a major studio. So go. If you don’t like it, have the honest and passionate discourse and come away with something. Then we can move forward. You’ve got to be the change you want to see.”

Octavia Spencer: “If anything you should come and support us because how many African-American-based films are there going to be this year? Not very many. How many African-American movies show the gamut of age, size and beauty? Not only are two of the three leads African-Americans, but there are several of us with substantial roles.”

In spite of their fears, The Help has been both a financial and popular success, grossing over $205 million at the box office, according to This weekend, as I reflect on The Help's broad based popularity and renewed interest sparked by its many Oscar nominations, I think back to other moments in our movie history and can't help but be reminded of the Oscars of 1973.

It was the 45th Academy Awards. Marlon Brando had won the Oscar for his performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Rather than accept the award, Brando invited Sacheen Littlefeather, a member of the Apache tribe, to speak in his stead. Bringing attention to the plight of America's indigenous people, Littlefeather stood before the world voicing opposition to the manner in which American Indians were typically depicted in popular culture at the time. This was particularly poignant because this was 1973 the year of the Wounded Knee incident. For a little over two minutes, this young woman shifted the focus from the facade of Hollywood to the reality of the lives of America's indigenous people, giving many watchers their first dose of Native American reality.

The Help takes place during the Civil Rights era - during the period when Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963. For many whites, the Civil Rights era represents the successful end of the long struggle for equality for African-Americans. Polling data consistently shows that white Americans tend to believe racism or race-based inequality is something that ended in the 60's. But African-Americans poll very differently on this topic.

Harvard professor Orlando Patterson offers an insightful explanation for this difference of opinion. According to the professor, the Civil Rights movement was successful in bringing about racial equality in the “public sphere” of American life. Patterson maintains that pre-civil rights blacks were virtually excluded from every public area of life in the United States. But – and this is important – after the Civil Rights era, blacks in America became publicly prominent in sports, music, theater, film, TV, politics, the military – and exhibited disproportionate influence in popular culture in ways that continue to be unprecedented among white-majority nations.

Speaking of the comparison between Black public achievements and the Black private reality, Professor Patterson recently wrote in The Nation Magazine:

. . . accompanying this historic public achievement has been a stunning failure: the persisting exclusion of blacks from the private sphere of American life. Outside elite circles, blacks are as segregated today from the private domain of white lives—their neighborhoods, schools, churches, clubs and other associations, friendship networks, marriage markets and families—as they were fifty years ago. The failure of school desegregation tells one part of this tragic story. A recent report by the Civil Rights Project of the University of California shows that black and Latino schoolchildren are more segregated from whites than at any time since the 1960s: some 40 percent of black and Latino children attend schools that are almost entirely composed of blacks or Latinos. Religious institutions are as segregated today as in the '60s, when Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed that 11 o'clock Sunday morning is America's most segregated hour.

To put this bluntly, Professor Patterson is claiming that racial segregation in the private sphere is as prevalent today as it was in the 60's but is masked by what appears to be racial equity in the public sphere. Still, in the private sphere of America we continue to have what the U. S. Supreme Court deemed inherently unequal-- separate worlds.

Professor Patterson's comparison of public vs. private is oddly appropriate as we look at the glitz and glamor of the public face of America – this thing called “Hollywood” when contrasted to America's private reality is clearly a facade bearing little resemblance to reality. Which is why we should bear in mind that movies are merely products generated by studios to turn a profit. The studio's overwhelming goal is to serve the bottom line, not to educate or enlighten.

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However, as was demonstrated in 1973, the Academy Awards can be used as a megaphone to reach those who are oblivious to the ongoing state of segregation and the resulting racial inequality that continues to exist in the United States. There were even rumors that Viola Davis considered making a political statement if she won the Oscar.

When The Help was released, I wrote a piece laying out my interpretation of the issues it raised. That piece got a lot of feedback. You can read my original piece and the comments it received here. Peter Dreier, Chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles wrote a compelling piece on this topic which can be found here.

In addition to the comments posted on my original post, I also received quite a few messages via email.

The 3 messages I've included below were sent by people I admire and trust. They have given their permission to be republished.

Email #1

Dear Sharon,

I just saw “The Help” and read the book a few months back. I have a different take on the film and book that you might find interesting.

Yes, “The Help” offers a white view of race and class relations in Jackson in the 1960s. But does this mean that it gets race wrong or is not a valuable book? There I disagree with you.

The scene which you focus on, in which Minnie is happy to be hired for life by a white couple, could certainly be true. Someone like Minnie might well have been overjoyed to be offered that form of security. Is it right that black women should be forced by poverty and racism to be domestics to whites? No. But neither the film nor the book makes that argument.

My attitude toward “The Help” comes out of my reaction to Schindler’s List, similarly put forward as Hollywood’s major attempt to deal with the Holocaust. I was mighty put out by that film at first, as were many Jewish critics. The Jews in the film are not developed as characters, because the attention is on a Christian and a Nazi, who is made into the hero.

Eventually I realized that the film presents the Holocaust for Christians. There is nothing new in it for a Jewish audience, but it was not made for Jews, although it was made by Jews. The audience is asked to put themselves in the place of this Christian man, who comes to see, as they do, the reality around him, and then he tries to change that reality. The two films share a great deal of structural similarity.

I teach the Holocaust at a college in which the one Jewish student I knew about graduated last year. So my course might well be titled The Holocaust for Christians. That changes what I teach and how I teach it.

Schindler’s List brought an awareness of the Holocaust to millions of non-Jews around the world, partly because they could identify more readily with the central character, who was not Jewish and not a victim. Of course, that’s not enough. I want everyone also to know what Jews went through from their own perspective. But that can’t happen until a non-Jewish audience is ready to learn that, ready to go beyond their cultural-ethnic experience. I think “The Help” can also function that way, by alerting a broad white audience about some aspects of what it meant to be white and black not long ago. Of course, that’s not enough. But that doesn’t make that effort worthless. Until whites can see themselves in the white-black relationship, they won’t be able to see you.

I could imagine using The Help in my course on the 1960s, in which I teach race relations for white students. If I said that film is it, now you know everything, that would be wrong. But as a wedge into their consciences and their smug sense of “whiteness = humanness”, it can be very useful.

Email #2
Written by a white man who left the theater an hour into the movie.

Dear Sharon,

I know that there are plenty of situations in real life when powerful people inflict repeated, systematic humiliations upon non-powerful underlings, but damned if I have to watch it as entertainment. This wasn’t the first time I’ve walked out. Years ago, my wife and I went to a Manhattan performance of “Chorus Line” (for which we paid Broadway prices), and I left half way through for the same reason.

That part of the movie – the repeated humiliations – seemed very true to real life. I had enough experience in my own extended family to know that. I had an Uncle and Aunt who lived grandly in middle Tennessee, and I spent some time with them when I was in my teens. But the second reason I walked out was, based on my own observations from the sixties, that it was entirely fictional to think that two maids would help a young white woman advance her career when, if they were caught, it would put them at risk of death or serious injury to them and their entire family. Of course black people did put there lives in jeopardy during the civil rights struggle in the deep south, but I doubt seriously that they did it to help a twit elevate her career.

Finally, I just could not put up with the movie glamorizing that twit for trying to advance her career by placing two decent people in serious jeopardy. The twit might have lost her social standing if all was revealed (but maybe not), but the maids could easily have lost their lives.

I was astonished to read later that some serious civil and human rights organizations had endorsed the movie. I trust and hope that for the endorsement, the NAACP demanded and got at least a seven figure anonymous contribution.

Email #3

Written by the wife of the 2nd emailer.

Dear Sharon-

My husband and I are glad that you wrote about "The Help". As you will hear from him in a separate email, he had his reasons for walking out of the movie half way through the screening.

I stayed. Though I was very aware of the fairytale,feel-good, Hollywood nature of the story, I am glad that I saw it.

Racism is so complex,and this wasn't a very deep expose. The movie's superficiality certainly grew out of the fact that it's story of racial injustice was told through the perspective of a naive white southerner rather than directly through the perspective of the black maids. In the real world of the 1960's these black women would have faced extreme danger and retaliation by telling Skeeter their stories. No black woman in the Jackson of that era ever could tell her white employer "Eat my shit" without risking her life.

But back to "the women of my church" who thought this movie uplifting... and who may well have been naive,ignorant, or just plain insensitive. Nevertheless, I believe it possible that some of these women might also have spoken to you about this movie, not just because you represent your race, but because they felt some personal goodwill toward you. And possibly, just possibly, these women may just be the ones who might be ready to listen, and to learn something about racial injustice through you.

In my view you have a bully pulpit now, and that this movie is a pretty good vehicle for some substantial conversation.

I admire the work that you and Dick do, especially on the LA Progressive, and send you affectionate best wishes.

My husband Dick and I have spent many a Friday night at the movies. Even though we generally prefer independent or foreign films and I'm not a fan of awards shows, we'll probably tune in to the Oscars Sunday night to see how The Help will fare. And while I admire Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for their outstanding performances in The Help, I look forward to the day when Hollywood's portrayal of Black life in America can be shown in its fullness and not just as a shadow of white America. Even more, I look forward to the day when the public sphere and the private sphere of Black life are more aligned -- where segregation in school, in church, in the workplace -- are truly a thing of the past.

Note: This piece was written in February 2012. In Sept 2018, Viola Davis -- one of the stars of "The Help" admitted in an interview in the New York Times that she regrets accepting the role in the movie. Said Davis, “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny [played by Octavia Spencer, who won a best-supporting-actress Oscar]. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.”

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Sharon Kyle

Publisher, LA Progressive