Who are you calling a “mammy”?

Black domestic worker cleaning a fireplace

I was hesitant to comment upon The Help, which received a fresh wave of criticism leading up to the Oscars. But then yet another post on the film, authored by Kimberly Foster of For Harriet, happened to appear in my Tumblr dashboard:

Last year, Davis’ lauded work in the film adaptation of The Help propelled her back into the spotlight. The magnificence of her portrayal of Aibileen is unquestionable though the film itself has been poked, prodded, and picked apart particularly by concerned black audiences and academics.

Pushback against the film forced Viola to take the defense.  In an interview, she told Tavis Smiley all the way off saying his disdain for the film was a mindset that’s “killing the black artist.” Davis was nothing if not beautifully eloquent in her assertion that “the black artist cannot live in a revisionist place.” You couldn’t help but nod along as this brilliant Black woman argued her case.

Davis, of course, fails to take into account that Aibileen occupies the most loathsome of revisionist locales. Historians have noted that the tale of Minnie and Aibleen are not even close to accurate depictions of life in the Jim Crow south.

The most intelligent criticism of the film is based not on the fact that the women play maids but that they play mammies. Maids, you see, are real women whose stories deserve to be told with dignity and without shame. Mammies are fictive martyrs whose love for their white employers eclipses the economic and often sexual exploitation domestic workers endure(d). The Black women of The Help are the latter.

I only went to see The Help after my mother (whose mother–my grandmother–once worked as a maid in the Jim Crow South) urged me to go see it. Having seen the film, I have to disagree with the assertion that the characters of Aibileen and Minny are “mammies,” rather than maids. First of all, the very premise of the film refutes that notion: if mammies, as the Association of Black Women Historians defines them, are so contented and loyal to whites, why on earth would this film’s so-called mammies co-author a book that defames their employers, even anonymously? Personally, I found the characters to be refreshingly three-dimensional and un-stereotypical. And contrary to Foster’s argument, the film did address economic exploitation: one of the subplots involves a maid striving to earn enough money to send her son to college–and the unjust consequences of that effort.

In her post, Foster mentions Tulane professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, who has been one of The Help’s most vocal critics. Though I am generally a fan of Harris-Perry, I think her criticisms of the film miss the mark. One of her grievances, for instance, was that Skeeter’s date got as much screen time as Medgar Evers’ assassination. Well, Medger Evers is not the focus of this film; there has already been a film devoted to his assassination and his widow Myrlie Evers-Williams’ subsequent pursuit of justice. But the film is devoted to the economic and racially exploitative dynamic between black and white women in the South, so of course Skeeter gets more screen time. And Skeeter’s date has significance, in that her suitor embodies the ultimately harmful ambivalence of many Southern whites during that period: he doesn’t have anything against black folks, but to him, any acknowledgment of his peers’ exploitation and maltreatment of their domestic workers is simply causing trouble.

That’s just one point, but I think it’s emblematic of much of the criticism of The Help. Here’s Foster, again, distinguishing “maids” from “mammies”:

Mammies are fictive martyrs whose love for their white employers eclipses the economic and often sexual exploitation domestic workers endure(d).

I’ve already pointed out how the film addresses economic exploitation. But this excerpt illuminates the unfair burden I feel is often placed upon films that address some aspect of black history: they’re expected to be an all-comprehensive guide to that period. No, The Help doesn’t touch upon sexual exploitation of domestic workers. But should it have attempted to catalog every bad thing that happened to black maids in the Jim Crow South? That would have made for a very convoluted film. The Help is ostensibly about relations between black women and white women in the South, and I think it did well in addressing that scope.

It also strikes me that few, if any, of the high-profile critics of The Help actually lived through Jim Crow. I didn’t, either, which is why I was open to reactions from people I knew who did live through that era. The general consensus I’ve gotten from them is that it rang true. I also must note that Myrlie Evers-Williams wrote in support of the film. I think many black filmgoers have become so accustomed (justifiably) to negative, stereotypical portrayals that often we immediately look for flaws and fail to appreciate nuance.

All that said, I am glad that Foster’s criticism is directed toward the film itself. I’ve seen a lot of vitriol and schadenfreude directed toward Viola Davis, including in one of the comments on her post at For Harriet. But in the end, I must push back against the notion that a black actress is required to represent black women in some prescribed way, based on a few people’s notions of history and stereotypes.