Quoted: How Hollywood and The Help Screw Up History

The Help Movie

There have been thousands of words written about Stockett’s skills, her portrayal of the black women versus the white women, her right to tell this story at all. I won’t rehash those arguments, except to say that I found the novel fast-paced but highly problematic. Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.

The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight — and more important, it was not their idea.

This isn’t the first time the civil rights movement has been framed this way fictionally, especially on film. Most Hollywood civil rights movies feature white characters in central, sometimes nearly solo, roles. My favorite (not!) is Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, which gives us two white FBI agents as heroes of the movement. FBI agents! Given that J. Edgar Hoover did everything short of shoot Martin Luther King Jr. himself in order to damage or discredit the movement, that goes from troubling to appalling.

Why is it ever thus? Suffice it to say that these stories are more likely to get the green light and to have more popular appeal (and often acclaim) if they have white characters up front. That’s a shame. The continued impulse to reduce the black women and men of the civil rights movement to bit players in the most extraordinary step toward justice that this nation has ever known is infuriating, to say the least. Minny and Aibileen are heroines, but they didn’t need Skeeter to guide them to the light. They fought their way out of the darkness on their own — and they brought the nation with them.

–Martha Southgate, The Truth about the Civil Rights Era

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  • MizMom

    “The Help” isn’t the worse thing in the world, it’s that there are SO MANY STORIES, fictional and actual about black people that are as varied as we actually are. But Films about black people in America act as a Rorschach about what people are comfortable seeing black folks doing- singing, dancing, maiding, having dysfunctional families-esp. dysfunctional black men. Won’t rest till we have a black King’s Speech, Indiana Jones, Room With A View, etc. We are not just one thing. I find it so frustrating that black people, we ourselves, seem so damn excited to see ourselves up on the screen, that we collectively rarely if ever seem to question the revisit back to the heartwarming scenes of domestic servitude that populate the cinematic landscape. This is not rage talking, but an actual interest in STORIES. Adventure, romance, philosophic- stories. Why are our stories always starring the hierarchical relationship between a socially dominant white person and a subordinate black person? Why are black men almost ALWAYS violent and abusive or dysfunctional in these films. I have an FB friend that posts historical facts everyday about black people who do not fit this model. Their lives seem really intriguing for me, filled with dramatic possibility? Why aren’t we demanding to see stories about those people? Is it because we don’t even know they exist?

  • MizMom

    A- f’in-men!

  • Pingback: Some Additional Thoughts on The Help | interrogatingmedia()

  • http://www.mondaysbaby.com Monday’s Baby

    Black people, and women especially, have been making these stories for years. Many of them are in the form of literature…when it comes to film, most of them have been documentaries. I think you’re overlooking the fact that for a story that more accurately portrays the horror of living under a terroristic system (exactly what the Jim Crow South was) to bemade by mainstream Hollywood, it has to be made “palatable.”  Haile Gerima’s Sankofa would never get a major motion picture release.  There’s no feel good-ism in it for those who are the ancestors of the oppressors.

    Also, I think Martha Southgate’s statement about white people being the help in the CRM were very clear. White people were not the architects of the movement. Period.

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    I’m not picking on you, but making a general point that springboards off your comment.

    If I live the rest of my days and never hear about how strong Black women are, it will be too soon.When do Black women get to be anything but strong? When is any kind of help extended to Black women in a way that acknowledges both her capability as a free agent and her vulnerability as a mere mortal? If we’re so strong, why aren’t we running shit? If we’re so strong, why does our well-being depend so much on catering to those who openly (or secretly) fear and despise us? Is that why it’s OK for us to be exploited and abused and betrayed so much? Because we’re so strong and can take it better than other people? Are the fortitude and compassion displayed by the women in this movie – and their real-life counterparts – a testament to their amazing decency as human beings? Or is it just “how Black women are” (as though we run on a program and don’t/can’t make moral choices)?

    • MizMom


      I love you! Okay, I don’t love you, I don’t know but thank you for articulating that.

  • http://twitter.com/kimmychoo Kyi D.

    Whoo! I’ll be quoting this all over the place! With its correct attributes, of course. Spot on.

  • ian patterson

    You say they learned from each other, but what exactly did Skeeter learn?  Did she learn that her lifestyle, education, and the food she ate were all provided by means of institutional racism?  Did she learn that racism isn’t just Hilly being very, very mean to POC’s?  Is her ambition to publish really controversial articles, or to combat white supremacy?

    I have concluded this book was not intended for POC when it comes down to it.  Skeeters dreams come true at the expense of black women, and the only lesson she learns is to abandon everything but your own ambition.

  • Anonymous

    This is supposed to be 1962? Sorry, but that white girl’s hair is out of the question in 1962, I promise you.

    The whole idea that a white person is necessary to explain the civil rights movement is just awful, presumtuous, and historically wrong.

    • Anonymous

      I agree that Emma stones hair in the movie seems out of place. But I think she was supposed to be an outcast. All the other women in the film had hair and appearances that were accurate.