Another Black Feminist Critique of the film “The Help”

October 7, 2011

I’m ‘Help(ed)’ Out And Yet, I Still Have Some Things To Say!

By Aishah Shahidah Simmons

This essay originally appeared at AfroLez®femcentric Perspectives blog on August 19, 2011.

There have been numerous primarily Black feminist critiques of both the book and the film ‘The Help’. Most of the critiques deeply resonate with my feelings about both entities. Since it’s official release on August 10, 2011, I’ve dedicated probably too much time to reading and reposting many of the critiques by both Black and White women. While I’ve shared some of my concerns with some, I haven’t compiled all of them into one note up until now…

I didn’t like the book ‘The Help’ at all, but I believe it is ten times better than the film. If there were a plethora of films about the complexities of Black life, I wouldn’t care at all about the film ‘The Help’. However, since there aren’t that many films out there, combined with the fact that this film will be seen globally and probably go down in cinematic history as a classic, I’m personally very, very clear about my sheer disgust about it.

I saw the movie at a sneak promotional viewing and I was horrified. Now, I thought Viola Davis’ acting was phenomenal and  Octavia Spencer’s was superb. They both did incredible work with the roles that they were given.  In spite of this, I was and am deeply disturbed by the film’s subtle and not-so subtle racism. Yes, I know the film takes place in 1962  Mississippi, and one could argue that the film was depicting the time. While some of that is true, what’s also true is that, in my opinion, the film is racist, sexist and ahistorical.

I’m the great granddaughter, great-niece, and granddaughter of Black women who worked as domestics for racist and sexist White people both in the Jim Crow South and the (allegedly liberated) North. I am the daughter of a  southern Black woman who spent 18-months (1964-1966) in Laurel, Mississippi working for SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). Hardly any of the stories that I heard, first hand throughout my life (and I’m in my 40s) from any of the aforementioned women or their friends, matched the portrayal of the Black women and their communities in the book or the film ‘The Help.’

There are many wonderful books by Black women authors who through fiction and fact poignantly address the realities of Black women domestic workers during the same time period that ‘The Help’ takes place.  Some of those books received critical acclaim.  And yet, those books aren’t turned into films. Several of those books have been listed in previous critiques of ‘The Help’ including Jennifer Williams essay and the Association of Black Women Historian’s Open Statement to the Fans of ‘The Help.’

In addition to those books, I reflect upon the very recently released Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women In SNCC, (edited by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy M. Zellner), which really highlights those unsung, many of whom were not formally educated women who changed the face of Amer-i-KKK-a in the Jim Crow South. I’m not talking about the multiracial SNCC workers themselves (per se); but those Black women (and men) who opened their homes and lives to the SNCC volunteers… Many of who were already doing radical and subversive work in the midst of working for “Miss Ann”… So many of the testimonies captured in this anthology are worthy of film or even their own independent book. In my mind’s eye, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC tells the stories of ordinary women (and men) doing extraordinary work.

My deep pain about all of the hoopla and fanfare about ‘The Help’ has to do with the fact that we very rarely EVER see a film where the sheer White male and female supremacist terror that Black people lived under (first during enslavement -which lasted for centuries, then throughout the Jim Crow era) is depicted. From DW Griffiths ‘The Birth Of A Nation,’ til present day, Hollywood has been committed to sanitizing and making light of excruciatingly painful, wretched, and inhumane times for millionS of African-Americans.  This system has been able to do this through castigating, maligning, stereotyping, marginalizing, and dehumanizing people of African descent. There is something very uncanny and disturbing about this, to say the very least.

While some have critiqued Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and other Black actresses featured in ‘The Help,’ I understand that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s hard out here for Black women (and men) actors in the Hollywood (or Hollyweird, as Toni Cade Bambara used to call it) system. When one turns down a role based on their principles and dignity, another one will gladly accept that role. I’m sad that roles in ‘The Help’ are the options for phenomenal actresses like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.  In many ways, it appears as if this vicious racist and sexist cycle will never ever get broken.

My questions are how do we stop this powerful system – Hollywood, which influences the world, from its ongoing cinematic racist, sexist, heterosexist/homophobic/ transphobic, and classist assaults not only on communities of African descent, but also on Latina/o, Arab, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific, Islander, Roma (Gypsy), and Southwest Asian communities…? When does ENOUGH become ENOUGH?

I’m concerned about the messages that are conveyed through ‘The Help.’ If you aren’t formally educated, you need a White woman to document and tell your story in order for it to get heard… Then the White woman leaves town to make it big in NYC, and you’re safe(?) in 1960s White Supremacist Terrorist Mississippi after getting fired for breaking your silence…? Or, your battered by your Black husband, and the White woman you taught how to cook, stays up all night to prepare the most delicious meal you’ve ever had. You were so moved by that meal, that you leave your abusive husband.

Foremost, are we really okay with these types of depictions of White women as the sole saviors to Black women’s lives, which are presented as historical fact? Equally as important, is this an accurate HERstory?  And if it is, which I doubt, how often did this happen? Was there real Sisterhood based on equality between Black women domestic workers and their White women employers? How does this story foster sisterhood based on equality between Black and White women contemporarily?

To quote Black feminist political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry’The Help’ reduces systematic, violent racism, sexism & labor exploitation to a cat fight that can be won with cunning spunk.

Again, if there were a plethora of films about the complexities of Black life, then ‘The Help’ would be another film… But, it’s not another film. For many, painfully similar to how the ahistorical film ‘Mississippi Burning’ became the cinematic representation of the disappearance of civil rights workers ~Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney; ‘The Help’ will be the cinematic representation of life for Black women domestic workers and their White women employers in Mississippi in the1960s.

To add insult to injury, the HSN (Home Shopping Network) has launched its on collection, inspired by ‘The Help.’ This is SO egregious and inhumane. In my opinion, it’s another example of how a painful part of African-American her/history (and what should be an embarrassing part of American her/history) has been sanitized and commodofied. To quote my Sister, Patricia Lesesne, “What are they {HSN} selling? Bullets, rape kits, nooses, tear-stained blouses, men’s dress shirts with blood spattered on them? Exactly which pieces from this time in US history are going to be sold on the HSN? Are they going to bottle up the essence of fear, terror, and humiliation in 6oz bottles and sell them as a fragrance trio gift set. What the hell is going on?”  Yes, Patricia, what the HELL is going on in 2011?

One way we can resist this insanity is by supporting (non-Hollywood supported/funded) Independent Cinema.  There are many, many filmmakers who are creating powerful narrative and documentary films, which depict the complexities of lives of people who, based on their race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, class and/or religion, are too often marginalized or worse, dehumanized by the Hollywood system.

If you see ‘The Help’, be an engaged spectator. It’s important that there is critical engagement and interrogation, even if, sigh and gasp, you LOVE the film. I think it’s important that all movie goers take time to really reflect upon the inherent messages not only in ‘The Help’ but all movies because there are always overt and covert messages that each one of us absorbs.


Beah Richards’ (unfortunately) timeless  (one-woman) play “A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood” is in my opinion, the best response to Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help”. Written in 1951, it is still most appropriate.

List of Critiques of “The Help” by Black Women, which are listed in alphabetical order. (I know there are more than those that are listed. This list represents the ones that I read).

  1. Association of Black Women Historians’ Open Statement to Fans of ‘The Help’
  2. ‘The Help’: A Feel Good Movie For White People by Valerie Boyd
  3. “The Help” and White Female Identity by Stephanie Crumpton
  4. Kathryn Stockett Is Not My Sister and I’m Not Her Help by Miriam Harris
  5. Melissa Harris Perry Breaks Down The Help: ‘Ahistorical And Deeply Troubling’ (by Frances Martel)
  6. Chocolate Breast Milk: A Review of ‘The’ Help by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
  7. No thanks Kathryn Stockett, I don’t want to be “The Help” by Joyce Ladner
  8. I’m Good Why The Help Isn’t Needed by Tonya Pendleton
  9. Why I Will Not See ‘The Help’: A Rant by Rosetta Ross
  10. Second (and Third, and Fourth…) Helpings: A Big Black Woman’s Thoughts on “The Help” by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan…-helpings-a-big-black-woman’s-thoughts-on-the-help/
  11. Why I’m Not Looking Forward to ‘The Help’ by Jennifer Williams
  12. Love ‘The Help,’ But Please Stop Asking Me To Do The Same by Rebecca Wanzo

List of Critiques of ‘The Help’ by White Women, which are listed in alphabetical order. (I sincerely hope there are more than those listed here. This list represents the ones that I read)

  1. Reading The Help by Susannah Bartlow
  2. For Colored Only? Understanding ‘The Help’ Through The Lens of White Womanhood by Claire Potter
  3. ‘The Help’: Softening Segregation for a Feel-Good Flick by Alyssa Rosenberg
  4. On ‘The Help’ And Moral Reckonings by Alyssa Rosenberg
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One Response to “Another Black Feminist Critique of the film “The Help””

  1. Katarina on October 16th, 2011 13:56

    Thank you for a great post.

    I haven’t read the book (hadn’t even heard of it before seeing the film last week), and was surprised to hear that it was written just 2 years ago, not in the 60ies as one would think. The below extract from my review ( is a summary of how I felt, which is very much in line with your thoughts:

    As New York Press’ reviewer Armond White points out the main aim of this film is to entertain, which might explain the lack of engagement with the subject matter at a level that considers the changes that have influenced discussions about race, gender and power in America since the sixties. An approach that makes for a dated film that requires the audience to ignore the most important change; that black American women no longer rely on white spokespersons to voice their concerns. Abileen’s, Minny’s and Constantin’s primary function in this film, which does little to challenge traditional racial power dynamics, and which translates black agency into steeling and black pride into frying chicken, is simply to help us distinguish good whites from bad, coward and victim whites. I might have been too distracted by the shallow treatment of the complex subject matter and the blatant stereotyping (incl. Minny delivering one Chappellesque line about chicken after the other, among them “Frying chicken just makes me feel better about life. I just love me some fried chicken”) to notice all the fun, but regardless the film would definitely have gained from more nuance and less slapstick.

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