Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is 'The Help' Movie a Retro Form of Racism?


Is 'The Help' Movie a Retro Form of Racism?
Why Some People Are Boycotting 'The Help'

Nancy Tracy, Yahoo! Contributor Network
Jul 18, 2011

Despite having a black president in the White House with an Ivy League education, the biggest movie about African Americans this summer involves black maids and their deadbeat men. The rekindling of demeaning stereotypes and depiction of white people as their saviors are two of the problems some African Americans had with the 2009 book version of "The Help," the novel upon which the upcoming movie is based. Critics of Kathryn Stockett's take on blacks of the 1960s are saying "thanks, but no thanks" to the author's patronizing portrayal of the black experience.

"The Help" quickly became a New York Times best-seller and book club favorite, and the movie version -- which is being marketed as an island of sophisticated drama in a sea of summertime shoot 'em ups and sci fi -- is likely to sell a lot of popcorn. Yet beneath the glossy veneer of this hyped Hollywood movie are some tired funhouse cliches that distort the reality of being black in the 1960s.

Some of the movie's detractors are urging a boycott of the film, creating a Facebook page to publicize the protest. Critics of the movie also dished on its defects July 16, using the Twitter hashtag #100voicesrespondtothehelp.One blogger even called the book "a whitewashed, declawed version of history."

Here are some of the biggest beefs that boycotters have with "The Help":

Reinforces Negative Stereotypes

The Help" dredges up stale stereotypes of African Americans being less intelligent and attractive than white people.The maids in "The Help" are adorably illiterate, like children who unknowingly say funny things. Minny, for instance, mixes up her body parts and cars: "Cat got on the porch this morning, bout gave me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny," she says. Another maid, Aibileen, is an Uncle Tom who admires her friend's straight hair. "Yule May, Miss Hilly's maid setting in front in me. Yule May easy to recognize from the back cause she got such good hair, smooth, no nap in in," she gushes. In "The Help," good hair is code for white women's hair

Black Men are Worthless

Minny is married to an abusive man who refrains from beating her only when she is pregnant, but otherwise lacks paternal instincts. After bearing six children, Minny complains, "Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it's not something the colored woman do. We've got kids to think about."

But why should black men be good to their women? The maids in "The Help" seem to like their men mean. Even the devout Aibileen laments, "Much as I love the Lord, church going man never do all that much for me. Kind a man I like ain't the kind that stays around when he done spending all you money. I made that mistake twenty years ago. When my husband Clyde left me for that no-count hussy up on Farish street."

Overdone Dialects

Remember Prissy in "Gone With the Wind," the silly young black woman who said, "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies"? Echoes of her illiterate speech and that of Mammy, Aunt Jemima and every other comically drawn black female character from historic pop culture can be heard throughout "The Help."

A writer for the Christian Science Monitor wondered why Stockett used a thick dialect only for the black characters, "with nary a dropped 'g' among her generally less sympathetic Southern white characters." Even Viola Davis, the actress who plays the maid Aibileen in the movie, had qualms with duplicating her character's exaggerated speech patterns. "I didn't want [Aibileen's] dialect to be as strong as it was in the book," she confided in an interview with Cinema Blend.

White Women Are Saviors

As with "The Blind Side," a 2009 movie in which a white middle class housewife played by Sandra Bullock saves a poor black teenager, in "The Help," an unmarried white journalist named Skeeter comes to the black maids' rescue. The subtext in both movies is that African Americans cannot improve their lot in life without a white lady to help them.

Desperate for Reality

Ironically, the movie trailer for "The Help" looks like a 1960s version of "Desperate Housewives" -- only instead of wine and housework, these southern-fried white women have maids and mint juleps. It is likely that Stockett's flawed film will not only prove as popular as the Sunday night soap, but also bear as little resemblance to reality.

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