Black women had few options but to work as exploited domestic help for wealthy white families. The narrative centres around three main characters. Skeeter Phelan is a white college graduate who embarks on a project to write an anonymous exposé of black domestic help. She enlists the help of Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson – black maids who agree to speak out about their lives at great personal risk.
Through racist words and gestures, the wealthy white women communicate contempt for their black maids. These same black women lovingly raise the white children of their employers, at the cost of barely being able to tend to their own black families. This story should speak to working class women today who still have little choice but to dedicate their lives to the upkeep of ruling class families.
The film illustrates the isolation from wider struggles, such as the civil rights movement, experienced by women working in the domestic, private sphere. The only experience by black women in this film of the civil rights movement is a brief glance at a television screen, which is easily switched off by a white employer.
The subject of black women’s liberation during this period should make for a captivating and provocative narrative. Unfortunately the film fails to adequately tackle the reality of the situation. There are no references to the mass struggles that shattered the racist Jim Crow laws in the South at the time, despite the fact that Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are in fact breaking those segregation laws. The film prefers to depict change as being the result of individual white middle class do-gooders rather than a predominantly black mass civil rights movement.
In fact around 900 demonstrations took place over civil rights and jobs in 1963 in dozens of US cities, climaxing in a massive March on Washington in August. Twenty thousand people were arrested and ten killed in the course of those protests. The omission of these facts helps tailor a narrative for a white liberal audience. While there are humorous incidents and genuinely moving moments in the film, these seem negated by an ahistorical, happy Hollywood ending, which overplays the positive contribution of a minority of white liberal women attempting to “liberate” black women.
There is much focus on racist employers, yet the assassination of prominent civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, June 1963 by a white racist, an earth-shaking event in the area, is given little attention by the director. Very few places and times in US history have had such potent underlying rage and social tensions. This was the context of the Evers assassination. Inevitably these decisions have ensured that the film’s narrative is relatively apolitical and ahistorical. The film wrongly suggests that liberation is an act of benevolent liberalism on the part of individuals rather than the result of a long period of mass social and political struggle.
The Help is directed by Tate Taylor and is released on 28 October
A new book by Paul O’Brien