Home > Race > The Help Ranks No 1, Grosses $96.8 Million, Unfazed By Hurricane Irene

The Help Ranks No 1, Grosses $96.8 Million, Unfazed By Hurricane Irene

The Help grossed over $71.3 million as of August 22nd just 12 days after its August 10th release, surpassing the film’s $25 million budget.  Unfazed even by Hurricane Irene The Help has swelled to $96.8 million at the box office. At an average U.S. ticket price of $7.89, that’s roughly 12 million people who flocked to see the film adaptation of the book by Kathryn Stockett. Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s, The Help is about the relationship between white women and their black maids.

I saw the movie with my mother who grew up in Alabama during Jim Crow and whose mother was a maid (her father was a preacher). Whatever imperfections The Help may have, we enjoyed the film. It allowed us to open up a dialogue on what it was like for my grandmother, affectionately called Mama Marie. She was a strong willed but kind and gentle woman.

My grandmother cleaned homes and medical clinics; she never took care of anyone else’s children. When my grandparents’ home burned down, Mama Marie’s white employer had it rebuilt, my mother recalls. She also remembers not being allowed to enter through the front door of any white person’s home and not being allowed to sit together at the dinner table. My mother was considered rebellious because she answered back to white people “yes” and “no” instead of “Yes Mam” and “No Sir.”

Kathryn Stockett

Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi where she has said “almost every family I knew had a black woman working in their house—cooking cleaning, and taking care of the children. I was young and assumed that’s how most of America lived.” In the book’s afterword, Stockett quotes journalist Howell Raines: “There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation.” To read what the author has to say visit KathrynStockett.com.

The Help attempts to portray how African American maids were treated, how it felt to raise white children, and how these children loved their maids yet grew up to be racists like their parents. The stories revolve around three main characters: maids Minny Jackson and Aibileen Clark and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phalen, a recent college graduate.

The Help has stirred its share of controversy and criticism—by those who have and haven’t seen the movie or read the book. It is attacked for depicting black females in stereotypical demeaning roles, presenting a whitewashed version of civil rights, romanticizing a racially segregated South, and so on.

Medgar Evers

The Help isn’t meant to be a civil rights movie. It doesn’t show Mississippi is the birthplace of the White Citizens Council (segregationist). But it does explore troubling race relations and how the courage to speak out can change lives. There are historical scenes with respect to Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers,  the NAACP field secretary who was shot in his driveway in 1963 hours after President John F. Kennedy gave a speech supporting integration. There’s a flash of photos of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. One scene references a KKK killing, another the Daughters of the American Revolution (Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership when the group refused to allow African American opera singer Marian Anderson to sing before a racially integrated audience at Constitution Hall). The Help depicts legalized racism prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

James Meredith

Even though The Help’s Skeeter attended The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), there is no mention of James H. Meredith, the first African American student to enter Ole Miss in 1962 after having been barred and winning a legal battle (aided by Medgar Evers and the NAACP). Federal troops had to be brought in to enforce the court order. Meredith is quoted stating “nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights.” He merely exercised his democratic right by applying to Ole Miss. With that in mind, I won’t lambaste the characters in The Help for not being civil rights activists.

The Help gives a glimpse of blacks and higher learning. One of the college educated maids is short the $75 needed to send both of her sons to Tougaloo College. Thanks to her vengeful white employer, instead of six months for a pretty crime (stealing a ring) she serves four years in a penitentiary. This is the catalyst for the other maids to agree to tell their stories.

Tougaloo COllegeThis leads to another conversation with my mother. Not about how the character ends up representing the criminalization of African Americans, but about Tougaloo College. It was one of 123 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in 1960. Although it has fallen on financial hard times lately, Tougaloo ranked as one of the “Best Colleges in the Southeast” by Princeton Review and one of the “Best Black Colleges” by U.S. News and World Report in 2008.  My parents met (and later married) while attending Alabama A&M College, another prominent HBCU.

“Your uncle graduated from Tougaloo,” my mother tells me referring to her brother-in-law. Indeed, Dr. Eddie L. Clark Jr., who was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1918, received his Bachelor of Science degree from Tougaloo College in 1940. He earned a medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1944. My uncle paid for his college and medical school education while working in Chicago as a busboy on a cruse ship during the summers. After his residency in general surgery, he established a 12-bed hospital during his eight-year practice in Meridian, Mississippi, providing treatment for African Americans who were denied hospital admission. He  ran a private practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania until his death in 1999.

There are no positive black men like my uncle in The Help. Also, certain aspects in the book don’t make it into the movie. The daughter of Cicely Tyson’s character has her same brown complexion in the movie, while in the book she is described as someone who looks white and tries to pass. It’s probably a good thing the film left out the “tragic mulatto” storyline. At the end of the movie Aibileen is fired and walks off saying maybe she will become a writer. In the book, she is hired as the newspaper’s anonymous cleaning advice columnist, the position that Skeeter relinquishes for her publishing gig in New York City. Plausible or not, that might have been a nice ending for the movie.

The Help’s critics are upset with Hollywood.  The real offense is an unspoken truth. Across the nation domestic workers are still struggling a half-century later. They face exploitative conditions, unpaid wages, a lack of overtime and paid vacation, even physical and emotional abuse. Check out Times Haven’t Changed for ‘The Help’ of Today at Women’s eNews, which discusses the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, meant to provide legal protections for nannies, housekeepers, elder companions, and cooks in private homes.

Apparently when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935—the law provides basic labor protections—domestic workers, overwhelmingly African American women, were left out. Southern senators refused to pass it if they were included. Domestic workers are still predominantly women of color, often immigrants.

Hopefully massive patrons of The Help will champion the rights of today’s help. Visit Domestic Workers United for more info. As for Hollywood, mom and I can’t wait to see a movie called Red Tails slated for release January 20, 2012. It is about the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American flying brigade that fought in World War II. The film is produced by George Lucas (Star Wars legacy). It is directed by Anthony Hemingway and written by John Ridley, both are African American. Box office receipts will tell how well general moviegoers and black audiences support a film about some of the fiercest black men in history. —Carolyn M. Brown

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