On Tuesday the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) published an open statement to the fans of The Help and said the film “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.” According to the historians about the only thing that’s true in the film is that working black women in the South often labored as domestic servants in white homes.
The historians say their statement is meant to provide context for this popular rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South and that it is in no way a criticism of the “stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film.”
The open letter describes the “regional accent” used in both the film and book versions of The Help “child-like” and an “over-exaggerated “black” dialect.” In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” The historians say they do not recognize this black community described in the film.
The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy–a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.
The letter also points out the widespread sexual harassment, physical and verbal abuse that took place in the homes of white employers that is absent in the film and book.
The historians also go on to say most of the black male characters in the film are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. “Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood,” the women of ABWH wrote.
The letter is signed by Ida E. Jones, National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at Howard University; Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross, all Associate Professors at the University of Texas at Austin. And Janice Sumler-Edmond, a Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.