Tiny Revolutions

By Laura Lee

In 2011 Dreamworks Pictures released The Help, a film based on the 2009 novel of the same name. The movie was a commercial and critical success, going on to be nominated for four Academy Awards and gross over 200 million dollars at the box office [1]. Over the past decade, however, the film has begun to be viewed not as a moving depiction of female “friendship” in the 1960’s South, but as an exercise in racism where oppressed Black women use their intelligence and talent to help upper class White women “find their voice.” This is an all too common pattern on the silver screen. 

I first read about this phenomenon in Roxanne Gay’s essay “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960’s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help”  where Gay discusses the “magical negro,”a term originally defined by Matthew Hugely in his 2009 article “Social Problems.” Gay explains this as “the insertion of a Black character into a narrative who bestows upon the protagonist the wisdom they need to move forward” [2]. She goes on to describe The Help as more of a science fiction film than a period dramady.  This is a film set in the deep south, during the height of The Civil Rights Movement, yet it does little more than briefly acknowledge the setting. The goal of this film is the comfort of its White audience, not the empowerment of Black women. 

It was these thoughts that went through my head on June 3rd, just 9 days after the murder of George Floyd and as protests for change swept the nation, when I saw that The Help was the number one movie on Netflix. I stared at my television for a minute, the image of two White women being trailed by their Black maids, and I wondered ‘who is watching this’? Netflix had more than 180 million subscribers, how many hundreds of thousands of people must be watching this for it to move to the number one spot [3]? While cities burned and people of all races were screaming for change, who was watching this movie where Black women in uniforms believed that the well-being of the White women in their lives was more important than their own? Two hours later I got an answer to my question in the form of a text. I looked down at my phone and my aunt had written “I’m watching The Help. Great movie. I love Jessica Chastain. Actually, they’re all wonderful.” I re-read my aunt’s text and thought of her sitting in her living room, blind to the world outside, watching this reductionist fantasy.  

I shouldn’t have been surprised, and really, I wasn’t. This was an ignorant woman who had always refused to see the fear that she let dominate her life. This was a woman who, when she worked at a public university, used to enthrall her friends with her impersonations of the Black students that she would engage with on a daily basis. She constantly lamented about Ebonics (“Why can’t they just speak correctly?”), immigrants “stealing” jobs, and Affirmative Action. Countless memories went through my mind as I looked at her text. Arguments that had raged at family functions over the years, her maddening combination of anger and self-satisfied pride when she exclaimed “I’m uninformed” anytime she was asked something requiring more than a superficial glance. The books, articles and documentaries that I had continued to lend her left only to collect dust on her coffee table, unwatched and unseen. 

So, I put my phone down, frustration mingling with the familiar current of shame that she was part of my immediate family, when I realized that I had an obligation. Outside, people were dying in the cities, facing unimaginable obstacles just for recognition of our shared humanity. I was a White middle-class woman, steeped in privilege that I’d done nothing to deserve. My aunt’s text was nothing in comparison, barely a drop in the bucket, but it was still an opportunity no matter how small. It was an opportunity to inform, a tiny crack in which to try and peer through to something more. I picked up my phone and wrote “Great acting, but I think there are a lot of problems with that movie when it comes to representation. You should check out this essay, it’s really interesting and might make you see the movie in a different light.” I attached a link to Gay’s essay and sent it off.  

I never heard back from my aunt, her next text was weeks later, a vague complaint about the weather with no mention of the essay. I don’t know if she read it, more than likely she didn’t. But that isn’t an excuse for apathy or for me to indulge in my privilege through silence. Because on a steamy afternoon in August 2011 I too sat in a darkened movie theater watching The Help. Laughing and crying as if on cue, I was blind to the real narrative on screen. I mindlessly consumed the fantasy, never once questioning what I was seeing.   

I am not ashamed of this person, rather I am grateful that I have been given so many opportunities to learn and grow.  That’s why moments count, even the small ones like the text from my aunt.    Because every opportunity, even the tiniest ones, or the ones involving people that never seem to “see” need to be used to inform, to listen and be heard. On their own, these moments may seem minuscule but over time, they help to create a more responsive and educated world. And in this way, they too, become part of the revolution.  

Endnotes: 

[1] Where Data and the Movie Business Meet.  https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Help The#tab=summary.  

[2] Roxanne Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays. (New York: Olive Editions, 2017). 

[3] Edmund Lee, “Everyone You Know Just Signed Up for Netflix,” The New York Times, April 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/business/media/netflix-q1-2020-earnings-nflx.html

Laura Lee (she/her) is a first year Women’s History MA candidate.  Her thesis work will be an exploration of the representation of child-free women throughout history and popular culture.  She loves pugs, travel, theater, sub-zero temperatures and any activity that involves jumping off a cliff.

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