'The Help' Disregards Agency of Black Women

By Liepollo Pheko · 27 Jan 2012

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Picture: www.sofiaworld.com
Picture: www.sofiaworld.com
‘The Help’ is a movie that tells the story of black domestic workers who quite literally hold up the economic and social sky of their employers in the early 1960s of Jackson, Mississippi in the United States of America (US). Their lives intersecting with those of the privileged white women whose homes they clean, meals they prepare and whose children they raise.

The Oscar-nominated movie made waves at the recent Golden Globe Awards ceremony when Octavia Spencer, who plays feisty domestic worker, Minnie Jackson, walked away with the “best actor in a supporting role” award – prompting America’s National Domestic Workers Alliance to issue a statement, which said:

"Domestic workers around the country watched with pride....After generations of exclusion and invisibility, we are so grateful to Octavia for helping bring recognition and light to this workforce. And we're thankful for all of the performances in 'The Help' that gave life and dignity to domestic workers stories."

 For South Africans, there is familiarity and resonance in some of the issues the film raises, however inadequately it may engage with them. In one incisive comment on social conditions, a white protagonist states, “We are separate but equal”, an ideology familiar to most South Africans and repugnant to the enlightened amongst us. Jim Crow and certain elements of apartheid were founded on these foul toxins.

Parallels with South Africa
A striking feature of the movie is the strong parallels between South Africa (SA) and the US with respect to the dynamics of race, class and power and how these are played out in the lives of the domestic workers. The often hidden and furtive nature of the abuse of domestic workers, as depicted in the film, is the experience of many women in this country too. The paternalistic relationships between employers and their employees are often accompanied by constant accusations of wrongdoing, acts of violence and threats of sudden dismissal.

According to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 88% of domestic workers in SA are African and 89% female. Like the women depicted in The Help, most are uneducated, already from impoverished backgrounds and with few prospects for improving their lives. And just as in the film, they are strongly discouraged from hoping for more.  Similar to SA, those who are migrants are doubly vulnerable to abuse.

While laws aimed at improving the lot of domestic workers in SA, such as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the establishment of a minimum wage were slow in the making, are inadequate and poorly enforced, South Africans may be surprised to learn that laws for the advancement of domestic workers’ rights, such as a minimum wage and better conditions of employment, are still largely being debated in the US. The state of New York only signed into law, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in August 2010.  A year later, the bill was still being debated in California -- and there’s the rest of the country that apparently still needs to get on board with the issue.

Absence of Men
A puzzling feature of the film is the absence of men in the core of the narrative. The white men are often seen retreating, letting the women deal with their squabbles while black men are unseen, but abusive and menacing somewhere in the background.

Both depictions are problematic in the extreme not least because the men in the film represent the architects of white privilege and supremacy. These were the men who created and enforced the apartheid-like ideology of Jim Crow from 1877 to 1965 through the judiciary, the church, the media, the workplace, living arrangements, social etiquette and social spaces.  Jim Crow asserted a white supremacy where black people were never allowed to aspire to more than servitude; could never be addressed with honorifics as adults, or interact with whites romantically and sexually. Much of Jim Crow was premised on the fear that black men were intent on ravaging white women -- the very ones seen in the film.

These husbands, brothers and fathers, in fact, were some of the men who often donned sheets at night and publicly took the lives of black men with impunity. Far from being passive participants in their over-indulged wives’ tantrums against “the help”, they participated in bolstering a hateful and even murderous socio-economic structure.

The film’s air brushing of this historical truth is troubling and dishonest.

Agency of Women of Colour
In the same vein, the film takes place just as the Civil Rights movement is making history and influencing social, economic and race relations across the US. In the period depicted in the film, NAACP activist Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus had already been the catalyst for a bus boycott that lasted 381 days. The courageous Little Rock Nine group had already endured spitting, beating and harassment as the first black students at a previously whites-only high school in Arkansas. As it turns out, only one endured this strain and graduated.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 when the film was set. And yet the references to the Civil Rights movement are extremely low key. These are the very people whose churches collected and organised for the movement and in all likelihood at least some of them were actively, albeit secretly, involved. But not one black character among the main protagonists is depicted as being overtly politically conscious.

This is unconvincing and cuts to the heart of one of the strongest and widespread critiques of the film, which is the tried and tested device of using a white protagonist to validate and articulate black experiences.

The central plot of the movie revolves around a young white protagonist, Skeeter, played by 21-year-old Emma Stone, who decides to document the stories of these African-American women. It is a device used in most anti-apartheid and civil rights movies in an irony that seems wasted on filmmakers.

The issue has raised much controversy for The Help. However, its cast, as demonstrated by Spencer, have been woefully inadequate at responding to the critique. Her weak response during the Q&A session at the Global Globe Awards ceremony does nothing to address this assessment of the dislocation of black agency from the events that unfolded in Jackson, Mississippi.

The film also panders to some disturbingly Mammy-ish depictions of black women who will sacrifice all for the white children they raise, often, while masking the pain of absence from their own children.

The depiction of the stoic suffering of Aibileen Clark (played by Viola Davis), as a badge of honour in contrast to the feisty Minnie is a troubling feature of the movie. The weight of abuse, disrespect, exploitation and dehumanisation that domestic workers face cannot be reduced to a crude, though amusing plot device, where Minnie feeds chocolate pie laced with human faeces to her cruel former boss.

Although the film concludes through the prism of Aibileen, it is premised on Skeeter’s desire to tell the women’s stories. It is gratifying that the film depicts her sharing her royalties equally among all the women who shared their stories, but one is left wondering why they needed her to gather their courage.

In reality, at the time, Dorothy Bolden, the African American organiser, was in the process of founding the National Domestic Workers Union and although it was formed in 1968, about five years after the film is set, the ground swell was pregnant.

Black women across the world have been self-organising in labour and political spaces under the most difficult conditions throughout modern history. This film removes our agency, our courage and our brilliance and places our fate in the pen of a young white woman with nothing to lose and a career to build. In 2011, this is altogether unacceptable and takes the black women’s struggle discourse backwards.
Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is Executive Director at NGO/think-tank, the Trade Collective and is Africa co-convener of the World Dignity Forum.

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