With the conclusion of Oscar season, I wanted to take a couple minutes and talk about The Help. The Help generated a lot of buzz, and it also generated a lot of backlash. I’ve seen the movie, read the book and had some time to gather my thoughts. In case you live under a rock, or are otherwise unfamiliar with the story, the novel tells the story of maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. The story is centered on Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Aibileen and Minny are best friends and maids in the homes of white families. Skeeter is a recent Ole Miss grad, who comes home and discovers her family’s long time maid (who essentially raised her) has disappeared to Chicago. It is in part the disappearance of her beloved maid that prompts Skeeter to want to tell the story of maids working in Jackson. She starts working with Aibileen and Minny to write a novel, entitled “The Help.” Obviously, the story is much richer than that brief synopsis, but I’m assuming most of you have read it already. If you haven’t, go read it! Then come back and read this post! 🙂
Essentially, the argument is that black women are relegated to playing degrading roles and this book (and movie) took those historical horrors and turned them into entertainment. However, I disagree. I think it is overly simplistic to just say that it’s a setback to black women to play a certain type of character. I think that the real setback is in the argument that black actresses have to even think about what it “means” when they accept a particular role. Plenty of non-black actors and actresses play maids, housekeepers, drug addicts, etc. There is never a larger backlash that it is beneath them to have to play those roles. The Hispanic community wasn’t up in arms when J. Lo played a maid in Maid in Manhattan. And let’s be honest, that movie was horrible – there was a reason to be up in arms. When Elisabeth Shue was nomimated for an Oscar for playing a prostitute in Leaving Las Vegas, there was no outcry. Why can’t black actresses have the same freedom to choose roles that appeal to them?
I do understand the point that there is a lack of quality roles for minority actresses in films — however, I think this cuts the other way. Because there is such a lack of quality roles, minority actresses should not feel like they have to turn down roles that may deal with difficult subjects, rather they should celebrate those opportunities. I also recognize that some of the backlash concerned some historical inaccuracies. That is certainly a reasonable objection, but I do not recall either Kathryn Stockett nor Tate Taylor (the director of the film) ever portraying the story as nonfiction.
I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the movie. And I don’t think that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer should have to apologize for accepting roles that gave them a platform from which to shine.