In Tate Taylor's film, The Help which released in 2011 to critical acclaim, we witness the relationship dynamics between a bunch of white privileged housewives and their African-American helps in Jackson, Mississippi.
The film is set in 1963, the year in which Civil Rights Movement had the glorious moment when 200,000 people of all races marched peacefully to Washington D.C. to advocate civil rights and job equality, and Martin Luther King stood on the steps of Lincoln Memorial and delivered his soul-stirring, and inspiring speech, 'I have a dream.'
Taylor, however, chooses not to show that moment.
His film begins with a prologue that introduces us to Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a white woman who is intent on writing a book filled with testimonials of African American maids on what it is like to work in white households in her hometown.
Her idea is to write the book from 'their perspective'. In the prologue, we don't see Skeeter, but we hear her interviewing Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged black woman, who works as a house help. We hear Skeeter asking Aibileen if she knew that she would become a house help when she grows up to which Aibileen replies that she did because her mother was a help too, and her grandmother was a house slave.
After this, Skeeter asks, 'did you ever dream about becoming something else?' to which Aibileeen replies with many happy nods. But, Skeeter quickly moves on to the next question instead of asking her what her dream was because 'The Help' is not about Aibileen's dreams.
Although the film is almost a decade old, it recently garnered a lot of attention, after it became the top viewed movie on the online streaming platform, Netflix (US) on Thursday amid Black Lives Matter protests that stirred across the United States, in the wake of George Floyd's death. This untimely resurrection of the film on Netflix movie gallery has been criticized by many Black writers and critics, who are of the opinion, that a film which was directed by a white man and is based on a book written by a white woman, should not be used as a resource to educate oneself about racism because it suffers from white saviour complex.
Needless to say, their observations are very apt.
The film predominantly tells the story of Skeeter, the social misfit, who chose college education over marriage and procreation and harbours the ambition of becoming a 'serious' journalist and novelist. After she returns from college and sees her parochial, racist friends discriminate against their house helps, insult them and demean them, she jumps at the opportunity of writing a story from the perspective of the house helps.
She initially coaxes Aibileen to agree to give her an interview. Minny (Octavia Spencer), who is Aibileen's feisty friend, and also a maid, soon follows suit. After these two women, many maids eventually come forward to share their stories. The book that Skeeter writes becomes a sensation upon its release and Skeeter bags a big job at a publishing house in New York. The End.
Speckled in between this main thread of the narrative focussing on Skeeter are stories of Aibileen's son's death, Minny's struggle with domestic violence, Yule May's fight to send her bright and beautiful boys to college, but we never see those stories play out.
They are just touch-and-go, in Taylor's world of whitewashed buildings, lined with picket fences, and manicured lawns, where during charity galas and parties, 'the help' stand on the sideline. Throughout the movie, women of colour are mostly in the background, polishing silver, cooking, taking care of the homes and children of the white women, whose demeaning comments they swallow in silence (with one exception of Minny).
The film, in fact, is so blatant in propelling the idea of white saviours, that instead of Luther King's speech, what we see are snippets of John F Kennedy's funeral as Skeeter's entire family gather around the TV set to watch the procession. Aibileen also hangs Kennedy's photo, next to the picture of her dead son to commemorate his death because this film is all about white allies, not about black people, their struggles and hopes.
Another reason why this film is an unsuitable resource for understanding racism, especially in the context of ongoing protests, is because it selectively addresses the death of Medgar Evers.
One of the only indications that The Help is set in 1963 is the death of Evers, a Jackson based Civil rights activist, who was gunned down outside his house on June 12, 1963, by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens' Council. The Help lightly touches on this event, as we see Aibileen rush home after a curfew-like situation rises with a radio declaring Evers' death in the background. We see the fear in Minny and Aibileen, as Minny asks Aibileen what happens if 'the whites’ knew that they were telling stories to SKeeter? However, the outrage, the protests that followed after Evers' death, in reality, is not shown through these African American characters in the film.
In reality, by the afternoon of June 12, 1963, many black protesters (protesting Evers’ death) marching peacefully with American flags in their hands were stopped by a wall of white policemen who carried clubs and automated rifles. According to a New York Times report, the officers struck a girl in the face with a club that afternoon and wrestled a middle-aged woman to the ground as they took 145 people into custody.
It is this history, (that we don't see in The Help) that resonates strongly with the current protests that are erupting in various parts of the United States.
There have been several reports of police violence in the media as well as social media accounts, as countrywide Black Lives Matter protests continue. According to an article published in The Guardian, "On Saturday 30 May, officers in a police SUV drove at a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn, knocking several to the ground. A day earlier, a police officer was caught on camera violently shoving a woman to the ground during a demonstration. The woman, Dounya Zayer, was taken to hospital and said she suffered a seizure and concussion."
Several violent incidents have been reported in other states too where victims and eyewitnesses complain that they were pepper-sprayed, or gassed by the police or batons, or physical violence was used against them.
Unfortunately, in a bizarre turn of event, it seems 1963 is repeating a more nightmarish version of itself this year, and all the work of Civil Rights Movement is coming undone, as a man gasping for breath for 8 minutes and 46 seconds lost his life because a policeman kneeled on his neck not allowing him to breathe.
Floyd isn't the only one though. The history of police racism is almost 400 years long and the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Stephon Clark, and Philando Castile are just new additions to a long list of African-Americans who were killed by the police. These cases and the current protests have also brought back nightmarish memory for families of Civil Rights martyrs.
Medgar Evers' wife and civil rights pioneer, Myrlie Evers, recently told USA Today that “my heart stops beating, and then the anger seeps in...I say to God, ‘Has nothing changed after all this time?’” It is one question that many African Americans have been asking.
However, one thing that is indeed markedly different between 1963 and now is The President of the United States. Back in 1963, when Myrlie lost her husband, another race riot was brewing in Birmingham and spilling across the United States but at the helm of things was President JF Kennedy.
During the riots, Kennedy continued to rally for desegregation and when Alabama Governor stood at the university gate so that African American youths cannot be admitted to the college, Kennedy, in a strong response said, "This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” Donald Trump, unfortunately, has dealt with the current situation in a far worse way.
The Help is the least helpful resource for any American to understand racism, especially in the current context. It neither encompasses the long unimaginable struggles of the community to get the most basic rights, their socio-political history nor does it allow the characters the voices and the narratives they deserved. In fact, Viola Davis who played the role of Aibileen in the film herself said, "I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard."
This movie, however, is a very apt reflection of the kind of discrimination domestic helps face in Indian households. Much like the African-American ladies in the film, the domestic workers in India are still treated as second class citizens, often demeaned and humiliated for their class and/or caste, and treated as unequal.
In the sky-hugging residential apartment building, of the posh pin codes of metro cities like Mumbai and Delhi, there are still rules that the domestic helps, pets, and outside vendors have to take the service elevators, and cannot use the main elevator.
Amid a pandemic, when everyone was asked to 'work from home', the ones who work in other people's homes were faced with many troubles. Domestic helps, like any other informal sector workers, have no access to healthcare, can be fired any time and have no sick leaves even in a time like this. Many of them were even forced to work by their employers who threatened to terminate their employment if they didn't show up everyday, despite the fact that the government had implemented a lockdown in place for the last two months, and advised Indians to only step out for buying essentials and medicines.
One of the most disgusting moves that Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the most racist character of the film makes is that she insists that every home has a separate toilet for helps because 'black people carry different kinds of disease than we do.' she says.
Such discrimination exists in several Indian homes even today, where not just toilets, even utensils are also separated and it is likely to get aggravated with a pandemic hanging on our heads.
Unfortunately, though, Netflix isn't streaming The Help for its Indian audiences.