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Second (and Third, and Fourth…) Helpings: A Big Black Woman’s Thoughts on "The Help" – The Feminist Wire

Second (and Third, and Fourth…) Helpings: A Big Black Woman’s Thoughts on "The Help"

By Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

Until more recently than I’d like to admit, I constructed my identity in direct opposition to the image of the Mammy. As a big black girl who loved to smile, I insisted on playing the father, the neighbor, the gardener—anything but the mother—in games of house. When bandanas were fly in high school, I made sure to rock mine in outlandish neon greens, underscored by purple extensions and lipstick the color of blood. Every chance I got, I made sure the second signal the world got from me—after the unmissable sign of my size—was the clear message: I will not take care of you. To this day, I sometimes suck in my bulges and stone my eyes when white toddlers gurgle at me on the bus, their mothers often looking on with ambiguously pleading smiles.

These were the memories, distant and not-so-distant, that rose in me while watching The Help, Hollywood’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name, which filled many a black woman with frustration in 2009. Directed by Tate Taylor, the film follows young white college grad, Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone), whose nickname, “Skeeter,” signals her status as a misfit, the sweaty, prickly girl in a community of flatironed perfects. (I need not mention that the super skinny Skeeter never really sweats, has pristinely Pantined ringlets, bats her lashes with the best of them and is damn near ‘perfect’ herself). Skeeter is a rabble-rouser, and decides to make a name for herself as a writer by profiling the domestic servants of her hometown, Jackson, Mississippi. And oh yeah, she thinks, my writing might help them too. This afterthought of Civil Rights soon takes center stage as key historical events (particularly the murder of Medgar Evers) converge with her post-pubescent awakening about the hard life of her own beloved maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), and a pretty white savior is born.

Among the domestic workers Skeeter sets out to ‘help,’ the most prominent is Viola Davis as Aibileene Clark. Aibileene is the domestic employee of one of Skeeter’s frenemies, who ends up gathering subjects for Skeeter and hosting her in her own home while she writes. Viola Davis is startlingly good, as always. I was intrigued by Taylor’s choice to give Aibileene a sometimey narrative authority, offering her spots of voice-over throughout the film. But this potentially subversive structure ends up serving more to distance American viewers from Civil Rights era racist ideologies than to expose them to poor black women’s inner lives. From Aibileene we learn little about her life, less about her pain, and nothing about her anger. But when Skeeter begins reading up on Mississippi segregation law to research her book project, it is in Aibileene’s voice—not Skeeter’s—that we hear the elaborate, careful, logics of Jim Crow spelled out. Because to hear phrases like “books shall not be interchangeable between the white and colored schools, but shall continue to be used by the race first using them” from a young white girl’s mouth might not feel so good… and this is a feel-good movie, after all.

Davis’s acting skills makes this conflicted commentary interesting—and makes it possible to sit through the film. But as a big black woman, my eyes were fixed on Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, Aibileene’s loud-mouthed, wide-hipped, comparatively thick-fleshed best friend. Minny does a lot of work in the movie: she is at once selfless Mammy and Angry Black Woman, moral center and comic relief. She helps everyone and everything on both action and narrative levels, helping herself only to another glistening piece of fried chicken, as needed. She is the insubordinate negro who propels the story’s plot to its climax; she is also the salve that cuts the tension for viewers by staging her insurrection through a breathtaking blend of comfort food and potty humor. And of course, she brings the comic relief like only big black women can, offering poetic odes to Crisco, cutting people down to size with exaggerated dagger glares, swallowing slim white women into her hugs, even though she’s not really that big. In one scene—the film’s lowlight—we see her leaning forward, eyes expanding to light bulb size as she exclaims “I sho’ do love me some fried chicken!” She then takes an aggressive bite of a glistening drumstick.

Minny is, of course, not the film’s only pernicious image package deal. The movie offers a Greatest Hits of America’s black woman iconography: worn brown hands on babies’ milkpool skin; a black woman bloodied by an abusive husband named Leroy; the requisite cure-all church scenes; and many, many a bulging eye.

But Minny seems to offer all this in a single package, and more. There is something about the image of the capacious flesh and generous smile of big black women that America cannot get enough of. To attempt a catalog of these figures would be tiring and impossible. And unnecessary. We all know Mammy and her iconic progeny. We see them peeking at us from pancake boxes and cereal ads and cleaning supply commercials and tear-washed talk show sofas. We see so much of them that some of us begin to see them even when they are not there. In black woman media moguls. In the thick-cheeked teenager on the bus. In ourselves.

I would be remiss if I said Octavia Spencer, in the role of Minny Jackson, did not remind me of my mother. Not in the character’s oozy, oafish moments, but when we see her anger, her pain. Truth fully told, in this respect, she reminds me of many black women I know who can deftly communicate disdain in the wrinkle of an eye, the slow downward turn of a frown. This is all a credit to Spencer, and what she does with the script. But for Minny Jackson, these subtle executions of power are limited to communications with other black people—with Aibileene, for example, when she first introduces the idea of sharing her stories with little white Skeeter, or with her own daughter, Sugar, whose few seconds onscreen comprise the film’s only sustained depiction of black familial intimacy. Under white gazes, Minny’s moments of self-expression and sophisticated punition are quickly obfuscated by comedy– a sharp turn of the hip and an exaggerated sigh of “Hnh!” or its dialogic equivalent.

These images are the opposite of new—they are the dirt from which America’s ideas about black women grow. And yet they are here now, as we speak, in wide-eyed, open-armed, wobbly-bosomed splendor. And there’s much more to come: of the previews shown before the screening I saw, the last was for the forthcoming crime comedy, Tower Heist, in which a slimmed-down Gabourey Sidibe acts opposite Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller as another two-for-one black female stereotype as the loving, angry, sidekick-of-a-sidekick who is also hilariously desirous of sex.

America clearly craves these images, and hasn’t got the something—the wisdom? The willpower? The courage? All?—to do the work, deal with its issues, and get off the stuff. Instead, it contents itself with the mantra “I’m getting better. Really. I am,” and numbly shoves another big black woman caricature down our throats.

And does this really help anyone? One of the film’s recurring motifs is the affirmation Aibileene offers her boss’s child, a chubby blond toddler whose face warns that, as Aibileene puts it, she won’t likely “be no beauty queen.” To this child, Aibileene delivers the affirmation, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” several times throughout the film. Dialect stereotypes aside, it’s a welcome feminist critique in a “Civil Rights” film ironically lacking in real interrogations of oppression. For that reason, I could not help but hold a sip of breath for some halfway analogous message to reach a black child on screen. The analog? When Minny indoctrinates Sugar with the ‘rules’ of domestic work, number one on the list is: “no sass-talkin!’” Minny repeats this rule to herself throughout the film as well—“no sass-talkin!; no sass-talkin!”—as if willing herself to stay on the Mammy end of the two pronged blackwoman pendulum, even as the red-hot lure of the Sapphire, calls.

And we, the audience are supposed to be content with that. This is supposed to suffice for complexity: a character who embodies two whole stereotypes in one, and is funny to boot. For many of us, it is this latter face of Minny with which we most identify—the one that says “hold it together; speak carefully and purposefully; don’t push me cause I’m close to the…” It’s the face that’s in constant dialogue with the meat it covers, ever reminding the self inside to measure, monitor, translate its anger. For others—like me–it’s the struggle not to contain my joy that defines my dealings with Mammy and her matrix of black female iconography. Either way, black women’s lives are rerouted around America’s centuries-old expectations, while our elations, despondencies and rages are beaten beyond recognition—even self-recognition.

This has never been clearer to me than during the film’s closing credits. The young black woman next to me, who had laughed and cried and murmured convivial “mmhms” at all of the chicken jokes, smiled at me as the lights drudged up, hoping to chat and bond. I thought about sharing my reactions with her. But I knew it would exhaust me in an already depleted state, and might burst an important bubble for her, mar a dim highlight in a heavy day. So I gave her a deep, genuine smile and turned away, deciding to write my thoughts down instead. And wondered if that would help anything at all.


Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is from Harlem, New York. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming internationally in publications including Callaloo, American Fiction, Best New Writing, Crab Orchard Review, Bloom, Lumina, Amistad, The Minnesota Review, 2010 Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories, Baobab: South African Journal of New Writing, American Visions and GLQ. She is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the William Gunn Fiction Award, the James Baldwin Memorial Playwriting Award, as well as honors from Glimmer Train, Gulf Coast, American Short Fiction, Best New Writing, Philadelphia Stories, the Boston Fiction Festival, Sol Books, Temple University, Del Sol Press, the NAACP, and others. She is the recipient of scholarships, fellowships, and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Yaddo Colony, the Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat, the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, the Center for Fiction and Williams College. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, completing her dissertation on voice and difference in contemporary women’s literature of the African Diaspora.

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