‘The Help’ sparks dialogue in U classroom

A viewing of “The Help” was followed by a critical dialogue from academic experts.

Meghan O'Connor


As Black History Month comes to a close, critical dialogue opened up surrounding the media content of the Academy Award-winning film “The Help.”

The department of African-American studies assembled a viewing of the film at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on Tuesday evening, followed by a discussion with a panel of experts.

“The Help” — based on the New York Times bestselling novel of the same name — takes place in Jackson, Miss. during the Civil Rights era in the early 1960s. The story revolves around a group of black hired housemaids who are referred to as “the help.”

The film made more than $100 million in the first three weeks.

The University of Minnesota event was coordinated by the department of African-American Studies as a part of Black History Month.

“It has always been the interest of the African-American studies program to make a legacy in being committed to community engagement,” said Rose Brewer, an African-American studies professor.

Heated arguments and critical commentary arose during the dialogue portion of the event. It was apparent that the movie had a diverse impact on its viewers.

“Many black people do not agree on the perceptions of this film,” said Duchess Harris, a professor of American Studies at Macalester College.

Harris argued the movie lacked honesty and pointed out how the film portrayed Mississippi without the Ku Klux Klan.

“The only shown brutality in the film came from Minny’s faceless black husband Leroy. … Where is the honesty in that?”

Originally, Harris wasn’t going to see the movie, but after reviewing the novel on The Feminist Wire and receiving more than 2,000 views in one day, she felt compelled to see it.

Author Kathryn Stockett was sued by Ablene Cooper, a housekeeper at Stockett’s brother’s home, for $75,000 on the grounds that Stockett stole her story to create the character Aibileen. However, the lawsuit was dismissed under a delayed statute of limitations — meaning Cooper didn’t file her suit soon enough.

“I did not want to participate in increasing Stockett’s wealth and success [by seeing the movie],” Harris said.

While Harris had strong oppositions toward the film and novel itself, Rose McGee, a storyteller, poet and fellow panelist at the event, felt a strong connection to the storyline.

“When I read the book for the first time, I thought, ‘Wow this is a good story.’ … What struck me was that I knew these women.”

McGee grew up in Jackson, Tenn., and from time to time, she would go to work with her grandmother who was hired help.

“My grandmother used to tell me to just sit there and to not move,” McGee said.

Just as in the movie, if the housemaids were seen rummaging around it was automatically assumed that they were stealing.

 “I felt good about the story … it brought me back to those days spent with my grandmother,” she said.

On Sunday evening, Meryl Streep won the Oscar for leading actress over Viola Davis, who played Aibileen in “The Help.”

“The most powerful thing about all of this is that Viola Davis did not win the Academy Award. It was like watching a modern day ‘Help,’” said McGee. “I think everyone in that room, including Meryl, knew she didn’t deserve it.”

When Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for her role as Minny in the film, McGee said everyone knew Davis wouldn’t take home the best actress prize.

 “It would have caused too much of a stir if two black women took home those awards … ‘The Help’ still exists.”