The Help, It Has Its Critics

Melissa Harris-Perry is an African-American professor of political science at Tulane University, a political commentator on MSNBC, and now has her own Saturday and Sunday morning program on that same cable network. She also has a diverse background in African-American History so she is well ready to discuss current media in the context of historical reality.

From that perspective she has been an outspoken critic of the critically acclaimed movie, The Help. I’ve not seen the movie but I know that part of the story line involves the relationships between black maids and the white families they served during the Jim Crow era of the mid-19th Century. In Harris-Perry’s view it does not accurately portray the dangerous reality the maids of that era had to deal with. Harris-Perry says it, “reduces violent racism, sexism and labor exploitation to a cat fight that can be won with cunning spunk.” I’ve seen enough clips of the movie to get a glimpse of what she is being critical of. 

Years ago I read about the Mississippi murder of a 14-year-old black child named Emmett Till. Till was brutally murdered and his body mutilated because he broke one of the cardinal rules in the South, he openly spoke to a white woman. That is the reality of blacks in the segregated South, not what was portrayed in The Help. Maids who challenged their white employers would have been instantly dismissed, if not worse.

Harris-Perry’s criticisms become more understandable to me because I’m reading Doug Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Blockmon’s book deals with the brutal system that developed following emancipation to keep blacks literally imprisoned in a system of industrial enslavement. Not wanting to pay for the labor they once got free, southern businesses conspired with state and local governments to imprison tens of thousands of blacks, for the weakest reasons, and lease convict labor to the South’s mines, mills, and growing industries. Black compliance or acceptance was enforced by acts of pure brutality. One imprisoned black coal miner described seeing people being repeatedly beaten with a whip with 10 lashes. Unknown numbers were simply worked to death to be quickly and easily replaced by others freshly arrested on trumped-up charges.

This was the reality of the Jim Crow South that many Americans simply aren’t aware of and the reality that would have made it so difficult, if not impossible, for the movie’s maids to go up against.

Blackmon’s book has since been made into a PBS documentary of the same name and is being aired on PBS stations during the current Black History Month. It is highly recommended watching.

3 thoughts on “The Help, It Has Its Critics”

  1. I’m wondering if Melissa Harris-Perry read the book, “The Help”, by Kathryn Stockett. My guess is that her perception might have been different from that of the movie. I have never been a fan of movies based on novesl as they always seem to fall short. The book is based on Ms. Stockett’s experience growing up in the South with an African American maid/caretaker. Her book gives honest impressions of that time , (I believe the setting was around 1950), and does not shy away from the terrible plight of those strong and courageous women who had no hope of any other future for themselves. It was written in such a way that at times I had to stop reading as the scope of this injustice and the sadness that stemmed from it, was too much to bear. It certainly made me think. My take is that the movie was a bit corny, and I agree, that the way it was portrayed seemed to trivialize and minimize the injustice. The ads for the movie showed silly scenes out of context which made the movie appear even more trite. I do think that the book may have educated many about this injustice.

    1. Nancy,

      It is the reality you found in the book versus how that reality was lessened in the movie that is at the heart of Harris-Perry’s criticisms. The fear is that too many will exit our theaters thinking they’ve been a witness to history. Hollywood has seldom been a reliable history prof.

  2. Re: The Help. I read the book and saw the movie, liked both, however they do just skim the surface of the problem. Some of the things in both were shocking, but I’m sure not as shocking as what was left out. Still, a good read and an entertaining film.

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