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“The Help” Isn’t Helping

By Donny Lumpkins, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO — Last night, I went to see the movie The Help and walked out about an hour into it, not long after a fried chicken joke between a black maid and her white boss.

I walked out of the movie half way through it because I’ve made a pact with myself that as soon as the fried chicken and the N-word start to get thrown around, I will remove myself from the situation.

As a young black man, I tend to cringe when white people try and address the complexity of race relations and the plight of black folks in America. They almost always get it wrong. I don’t even think Hollywood should try.

The Help is a movie set in the 1960s South and it’s about a young white reporter who gets some black maids to talk to her about their lives working in the households of white families. I wasn’t really sure what to expect — I didn’t read the bestselling book and I try to stay away from movies where race is a theme. Any kind of movie where white people are “helping” black folks succeed puts a thorn in my paw. It seems a little self-serving to me.

But I like January Jones from Mad Men and the girl with the swoopy bangs in Superbad, Emma Stone, so I kept an open mind.

I saw the movie in downtown San Francisco, at the Westfield at 8:30 PM. I see movies there fairly often and the crowds tend to be diverse, but when I took a look around in the dark theatre, I realized I was the only black person in sight. I didn’t expect it to be packed with black folks like a Spike Lee movie, but still…

This is a movie about black people for white people, I thought, and already began to get very offended.
It’s been my experience in the city with some white folks that they think they understand more about black people then they really do and it can get uncomfortable.

The script was scoff-worthy and I felt particularly uncomfortable every time the crowd laughed at anything the black characters did, even if it was supposed to be comic relief. I wasn’t sure if the crowd was laughing at or with them. At some points, I would even find the crowd laughing when there was no joke at all – just some homely-looking black folks on screen.

The way the black characters were portrayed was definitely a sore point for me. I hate the shuck and jive way the black ladies spoke and I just get furious any time I see a black woman in a maid outfit. It makes me think of my mother and sisters, who are all strong, successful black women, and who would have had to be maids to endure those times.

The white characters weren’t much better. The main character, played by Emma Stone, spent most of the film being pursued by a WASPy-looking, pig-headed white guy who she kisses as the sun sets in the backdrop, just a few scenes after a race riot broke out where the lead black character, played by Viola Davis, had to run home in fear of being murdered by a blood-thirsty mob, as her son had been.

And I must say I really didn’t enjoy hearing January Jones use the N-word. She’s such a sweetheart and to hear it come out of her mouth with such force might have been intended as good acting, but I don’t think she’s that good.

I knew it was close to my time to leave as soon as one of the black maids sat down to eat some fried chicken with one of the housewives she worked for proclaiming in some slave-type English “I never burn my fried chicken!” and the crowd erupted in laughter.

The scene that broke the camel’s back for me was when one of the maids was arrested for stealing a ring from a house she worked at and is put in handcuffs and hit across the face with a Billy club by a portly, Southern-drawled policeman.

At that point, I had seen enough to know that even though there were fantastic black actresses in the film, black folks like me who cringe when they hear anyone say nigger or nervously laugh when white people do black impressions or say “Fiddy” Cent instead of Fifty Cent, would not find it amusing.

I find that Hollywood is way too bone-headed and self-absorbed to tackle any subject as convoluted and complex as racism. Instead, The Help just throws every stereotype at you at once about black people and white people. Whenever black people have to “act like black people” in movies, there seems to be a disconnect between the reality of the culture and the movie version of black lives.

And it’s not just white filmmakers that have this problem. It’s the same issue I have with Tyler Perry movies: they are just stereotype after stereotype and I think they do more harm for the perception of black people than good. Whenever one of my white friends talks about Tyler Perry movies and what they found funny in the movie, I realize a disconnect between me and them that is only there when race comes into play. It seems to me, sometimes white folks are laughing at us rather than with us.

From what I could tell, the impact of a film like The Help is that white folks get to go in a theater and feel all warm and fuzzy about a time that was horrid for black people. I think it’s way too simple to think all the help back then were scared black women who lived under the oppression of racist self-absorbed desperate housewives, as the movie made them out to be.

It upsets me that people so freely travel back to those times and some even miss them. Trying to find nostalgia in those ugly days is dangerous and potentially harmful for the future. That was a time where people like me could not live in peace and I’m happy that we as a country have moved past it. I would hope most whites have, too.

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Kellie Says:

    I have been reading positive reviews everywhere about this movie so I was excited to go out with my mother and cousin tonight for a ‘girls night out’. Wow, was I disappointed. I am a mid-40′s white woman, I can assure you I was not laughing AT anyone in this movie… I found it very disturbing and depressing. I left feeling a bit ill. I think pretty much all the reviews I’ve read and the previews were very misleading.

  2. Susan Says:

    Hi Kellie,

    Thanks for posting that. I agree with you. I’m a white female and I also found the movie disturbing. It shows what black females had to endured during that time and probably still do today.

    The movie also shows white females as agents of racism–vile racism. I cringed at times knowing some of us can be so cruel. We are all women and should have some empathy for other oppressed women. It’s an interesting dicussion to have among us women. I’m having that discussion with my black female friends. So at at least something good came out of this movie.

  3. Kevin O'Toole Says:

    I’m hearing your comments about the picture. (Two things immediately: you were confusing Bryce Dallas Howard, I think, for January Jones who was not in this film; and Viola Davis’s son in “The Help” was not lynched, but was, as I recall, in an auto accident, for which he could not get proper emergency care in Jim Crow era Mississippi).
    My own take was that it was a very “Disney-fied” version of history, which benefited from great actresses (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, and Howard). Unfortunately the material tended to reduce the characters’ lives to relatively thin stereotypes across the board. I found myself thinking back to Spike Lee’s complaints about Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” back in the 1990′s. The Help was thinner still (though I did hear from some self-professed fans of the book that the movie got it pretty much right, so perhaps the source material is to blame).
    The saddest thing is that this movie, with its’ mediocre aspects will probably yield multiple Oscar noms come time… largely because of the thinning pool of weighty roles for good actresses in Hollywood.
    Still, as the film’s fans would argue, it’s not exactly Transformers… and the amazing thing to me was how, even with the Disneyfied version on screen, early 1960s Mississippi was still quite the police state.
    I almost wish you had seen the whole movie, though, if only to find more to complain about.
    (and, since context may be important here, I will declare that I am of Irish descent entirely (as far as I know, anyway…))

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