Discrimination in The Help
By Alexia Privratsky
Imagine washing dishes and caring for another woman’s children all day, every day, with little to no appreciation or recognition; feeling like the children are your own, due to the fact that you practically raised them. Imagine being an African American woman in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, working as a housemaid, when the civil rights movement was in full motion. Jim Crow laws prohibit you from entering the same stores as white people, sitting in the same bus seats, using the same restroom, and even going to the same schools. You live a life entirely separate from that of white people, yet they still allow you in their home to work for them. This depiction of the lifestyle of African American housemaids in the 1960s is portrayed in the movie, The Help. This movie is about a young woman, named Skeeter, who recently graduated college and has returned to her hometown, Jackson, Mississippi, to work on a project for her career as a journalist. The other white women that are the same age as Skeeter refer to their housemaids as “the help,” who are predominantly African American women. The treatment that the maids receive from the white women sparks unsettlement in Skeeter’s gut, giving her the idea to write a book about the relationship between housemaids and Southern white women. Skeeter eventually has numerous of the housemaids agree to tell her their stories, from which eventually Skeeter is able to publish a book. The main purpose of this movie is to portray the reality of racial discrimination in the 1960s. The Help, overall, effectively portrays the magnitude to which racial discrimination impacted the lives of many African Americans in the 1960s through the use of specific visual and audio techniques, including editing, sound design, mise en scene, cinematography, and visual design.
During the 1960s, when The Help is set, the civil rights movement had begun to run full force. At this time, people were protesting, sit-ins were taking place at restaurants, the Little Rock Nine made a bold move attending an all-white high school, Rosa Parks got arrested for not giving up her seat, and so on. African American people were pursuing change in the world and were tired of the consistent discrimination that they faced. The director, Tate Taylor, and the producers of The Helpwanted to portray the racial discrimination that many African American women faced on an everyday basis, that was not always talked about in the media. The Associate professor of Theater at Tufts University, Monica Ndounou, states the filmmakers’ purpose as well when she states in her book, Shaping the Future of African American Film, that “the black female protagonists in each film are intended to appeal to female audiences across color and class lines on the basis of women’s issues.” This shows that not only were the filmmakers of The Help seeking to portray issues of race, they also included issues regarding women’s rights. The filmmakers were able to convey the importance of the historical component of the movie through using film elements as well, such as mise en scene. The filmmakers created each set to include specific details, such as in the white womens’ homes the scenes had expensive decorations and looked virtually perfect while when the scene shows one of the black womens’ homes, it is not as nice nor particular (12:06 and 41:01). This detail that the filmmakers included also entails the historical importance of the impact that racial discrimination had on class standing. Since black families were not able to pursue the same careers or education that white people had the opportunity to, they often lived very simplistic and poor lives. Overall, this film portrays a very important time in history when minorities were finally embarking upon freedom and independence.
Through the historical component of this film, viewers are also able to determine instances of difference portrayed. The filmmakers were trying to exhibit the large social gap between African Americans and white people during this time period; they accomplished this through including scenes that show the difference in housing, clothing, lifestyles, and careers that different racial groups had. For example, at 8:21 in the film, Hilly, her mother Missus Walters, and Minny are walking down the sidewalk. In this scene, the camera makes a following shot, meaning the camera follows the characters’ movement to keep them in the frame.
This technique accentuates the clothing that each character is wearing: Hilly and her mother are wearing nice dresses and heels while Minny is wearing a maid’s uniform. This technique peaks the attention of viewers at each character’s outfit, and shows the drastic difference that their social classes are through the things they are wearing. Another instance of how the filmmakers portray examples of difference in the film is seen through Skeeter’s character. Although Skeeter is a white woman, she is still widely different from her peers. Exactly like Carol Miles, a professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, states, “from [Skeeter’s] untamed curly locks to her practical shoes, and seeming lack of interest in marriage and starting a family, she is unconventional by the standards of the day and among her peers.” The filmmakers purposefully create Skeeter’s character to be an outsider to justify her decision of completing illegal acts, such as when she listens to the black womens’ testimonies regarding the treatment they receive from white people (56:26). Due to the time period exemplified in The Help, the filmmakers worked very hard to distinctively portray differences among the black and white characters. Without these differences, the stark laws regarding interracial friendships would not be as understood by the audience. Not only was it dangerous for black and white people to become friends in the 1960s in Mississippi, like Skeeter did with the maids, “it was dangerous in Mississippi for whites and blacks [to even] talk about racial oppression” (Denby). The portrayal of difference in this film has such a heavy importance that without it, the civil rights movement of the 1960s would be inaccurately represented.
Not only are instances of difference among the characters important in the film, instances of the amount of power that different characters have is as well. The filmmakers of The Help crafted each character’s socioeconomic standing to represent the amount of power that they had in society. For example, due to the fact that the maids worked for the white women, they were often treated as if they did not have any power in society at all. At 32:24 in the movie, Hilly and Minny have an argument about Minny using Hilly’s restroom, which leads to Minny getting fired. In this scene, the amount of power that Hilly has is seen through the sound design in the film; when Hilly screams at Minny when she hears the toilet flush, she immediately uses her power to fire Minny. This scene directly correlates to the power that black people had in society in the 1960s as well. Manohla Dargis illustrates the degree to which white people had power over their maids when she states that the filmmakers included scenes of Aibileen and Minny “cleaning white houses and polishing the silver — and cooking meals and tending children and smiling, always smiling, even as they pretend not to hear the insults — to remind you that this is at least partly about backbreaking, soul-killing black labor.” Another instance of the portrayal of white power in this movie is when Hilly states that as a Christian, she is doing Yule Mae Davis a favor by not loaning her the money to pay for her sons’ college. This scene uses a medium close-up on Yule’s facial reaction to show the disappointment that she has in Hilly after she says that she would not loan her the money. Overall, the portrayal of power in this film is crucial to the central purpose of the movie, which is to accurately depict the lifestyle of African American women in the 1960s in the South.
Similarly to how difference and power are portrayed in the movie, discrimination is also depicted. In the Southern states amid the civil rights movement, white people were incredibly discriminatory towards African Americans. Due to the fact that the movie, The Help, takes place during this time period and the main characters are African American women, discrimination is central to the development of the plot. An example of when discrimination is portrayed is when Hilly finds it unacceptable that the black maids use the white women’s restrooms (14:52). In fact, due to Hilly’s disgust, she refuses to use the restroom despite how badly she has to go. This scene directly illustrates the degree to which black women faced discrimination during this time period; due to their color of skin, they were not allowed to use the same restroom as white people. The filmmakers of the movie were able to use frontality shots and still focus of the camera to isolate Aibileen’s reaction to Hilly’s statement regarding the bathroom, which provides a detailed explanation of the emotions that the black women felt from the discrimination they faced.
Another example of discrimination that is portrayed in the film is when Aibileen and Henry are riding the public bus home when the bus stops at a traffic block and the driver tells the “colored people” to get off the bus so that he can take the white people home (1:21:07). This scene contains numerous different forms of discrimination, from the fact that Aibileen and Henry were riding in the very back of the bus, entirely separate from the white people to the fact that they were forced to walk home. The filmmakers use a medium close-up on Aibileen and Henry before they are forced to get off the bus, to subtly show that they are in the very back of the bus, which is seen ever so slightly to the left of the camera’s focus. This technique enhances the portrayal of discrimination in the film because it adds another aspect of African Americans’ daily lifestyle that was affected by racism. This distinct illustration of racism also contributes to the film’s sole purpose, which is to show“the injustice of black-white race relations in the South at the dawn of the civil rights movement” (Rainer).
Even though the filmmakers of The Help carefully crafted the film in order to ensure that every detail was accurately portrayed regarding the real-life events during the civil rights movement, there was still a minute amount of criticism. Tiyi Morris, a professor of African American studies at Ohio State University, states that the filmmakers of movies, including those of The Help, “continue to ignore or deny the ugliness of racism and race relations throughout our nation’s history, instead opting for a sanitized and ultimately fictitious version of the past.” This was a common criticism of this film, due to the fact that it glazes over the harsh realities of racism and discrimination in the South, such as in lynching and violence. While this statement does contain some truth since The Help does not portray instances of the true violence that many black people faced during this time, there is valid reasoning as to why the filmmakers did not include such scenes. Since the film is rated PG-13, there are certain requirements that it must fulfill; if the movie were to portray the degree to which black people faced violence, the movie would need to be rated R. Also, the filmmakers made a decent effort in trying to depict the violence that African Americans faced, such as at 1:22:37 in the film, when Minny and Aibileen hear on the radio that a black man was killed by the KKK. Even though the film never shows the instance of the man being killed, the impact that it has on Minny and Aibileen shows enough. The filmmakers implicitly show their audience the violence that black people faced without graphically showing it on screen. So while criticisms of the movie state that the film shows a “fictitious version of the past,” others could counter the argument by showing scenes in the movie where the filmmakers allude to such violence black people faced amidst the civil rights movement (Morris).
The movie, The Help, portrays such a realistic and appalling version of the past that draws viewers in instantaneously. It is because of this reason that I decided to analyze this film. When I first watched The Help, I was astounded to see how white people treated such kind-hearted and hard-working African Americans. It truly broke my heart to see the amount of discrimination and power that white people had over innocent black people. I felt a deep connection to this movie in my heart because of the way that it portrayed white and black people. I found it interesting that while the white women were always trying so hard to look “perfect,” they often had more flaws than their maids. This shows the amount of humor that the filmmakers tried to include into The Help, they have a better interpretation of what it was truly like to be an African American in the 1960s. It is through films such as this that the issue of racial discrimination is brought to people’s attention in an urgent matter.
Due to the urgency of the issue regarding racial discrimination, it is important that people place themselves in the shoes of those who are part of racial minorities in order to understand the struggles that they have gone through. For example, imagining you were an African American maid in the South in the 1960s can directly show the treatment that black women received during this time period; not receiving appreciation, being paid incredibly low wages, not being able to use the restroom in the house, and raising another woman’s children as if they were their own are all hardships that these maids faced during this time. The movie, The Help, portrays the relationship between black maids and white women to show viewers how influential the civil rights movement was to today’s society; without the civil rights movement, society would not be as progressive as it is today, meaning that even more racial discrimination would exist than what already does. Overall, this film discusses such important topics regarding racial discrimination that everyone should watch it. If we want society to continue to progress towards racial equality, we must first become educated on what initially caused racial tension to understand the pain that many white people have caused other races.
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