The film The Help, directed by Tate Taylor, was released in 2011. It focuses on the civil rights movement in the early 1960s in Mississippi. The film focuses on the main character and the book she decides to write–a book which includes the points of view of African American maids who work for white families, exposing the reality of their lives, and the treatment they receive. Skeeter, the main character who is writing the book about the maids, is a white female and was raised with the Southern ideal that African Americans are less than white people and should be treated as such. Even though Skeeter does not buy into this ideal, her family and peers do, and get angry when the book is published because they don’t think that anything is wrong. When Skeeter’s boyfriend breaks up with her after he finds out she wrote the book, he even says, “Why’d you have to go and stir up trouble? Things are just fine around here” (Taylor).
The Help adapts early American literature by giving a visual representation of the treatment that African Americans received in Southern America and white people’s resistance to giving them equality, failing to acknowledge that they are actual humans. Hilly, another character in the movie, spends most of the film working on an initiative that would require households to have a separate bathroom for the maids. She believes that sharing a bathroom is “just not safe,” because “they carry different diseases than we do” (Taylor). The audience frequently sees the blatant disgust on Hilly’s face when the “colored situation” as she calls it is brought up.
Like many forms of early American literature, The Help focuses on the systematic discrimination and oppression against African Americans by white communities and how, throughout history, that hasn’t really changed. The movie takes place in the early 60s, long after the Civil War, and African Americans are still being denied their rights and are still being treated as subhuman. The film also touches on how unsafe it is for African Americans to mingle with white people outside of work. In one scene, Skeeter is trying to persuade Aibileen to share some of her stories for the book which makes Aibileen visibly terrified. Skeeter promises that they will be careful to which Aibeleen replies “this already ain’t careful, Ms. Skeeter”, referring to them just talking about Skeeter’s book in the open. Within the next few scenes we learn that what Skeeter wants to do is against the law and could get her and anyone helping her arrested.
The film works as early American literature in the way that it is exposing the treatment and lifestyles in the southern part of the country that might not have otherwise been shown. Americans tend to hide the ugly parts of history because it’s embarrassing; it is a stain on American history, we don’t want to think that the people of America are capable of such cruelty, and so it is ignored and buried underneath all the greatness of the country. The Help focuses on the Civil Rights movement on a more personal, individual level. We get to see inside the lives of Minnie, Aibeleen, and other maids as well as the lives of the women who employ them. Because it is a film, we get to see how each person’s life is affected, we get to see how hard the characters have to fight for the lives they have, and because it is a film, we get a more personal experience. If we were to watch the Civil Rights movement being covered by a news station, there would be no introductions, it wouldn’t be as emotional. But because we have been introduced to a small circle of people, we are able to sympathize with them and hope for their success. The theme of The Help holds true with other texts we have read in class and other films that deal with white people interacting with oppressed or enslaved African Americans. In The Heroic Slave, without the help of Listwell (a white man), Washington’s rebellion would have been unsuccessful. In a film called The Free State of Jones, a Civil War deserter named Newton Knight helped to lead a successful slave rebellion and helps a group of freed slaves get the chance to vote. In The Help, Skeeter is giving the maids a voice and a chance to be heard by writing and publishing a book filled with their stories. In all of these situations, African American people are only able to have successful uprisings and are given a widely heard voice because a white person gave it to them.
The fact that The Help is a film as well as a text is important because it broadens the audience and draws more attention to the story. In today’s world, most people prefer the TV screen to a book or newspaper because it’s easily accessible, easier to understand, and a story can be told in the fraction of the time it takes to read a novel. The box office earnings for the film adaptation totaled nearly $170,000,000 in the U.S. alone, whereas the novel only made around $850,000 in sales (The Help). Today, American literature is largely consumed through modes of media like a movie theater, social media and sites like YouTube. Technology has made it easier and faster to spread information and things like films, and they’re easily accessible. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO and other streaming sites make the availability of electronic literature almost unlimited for a monthly charge, which is heavily influencing the types of literature being produced and consumed.
Media and digital technology is changing the study of American literature by switching focus from traditional print texts to films, commercials and TV shows (texts that we analyzed in Studies in English). Instead of close reading a print text, analyzing it and writing a paper on it, we close read the film Get Out. We also looked at commercials and parts of a TV show and discussed the messages being sent from them. We did the same thing earlier this semester when we looked at a scene from Pocahontas and examined the film’s larger implications. The gradual shift from traditional texts to digital forms of literature is changing my understanding of American literature because it’s showing that literature is not strictly in paper form. It has evolved into several different forms that are being integrated into education as well as people’s everyday lives.
Taylor, Tate, director. The Help. 10 Aug. 2011, www.imdb.com/title/tt1454029/.
“The Help (2011) – Financial Information.” The Numbers – Where Data and Movies Meet, 10 Aug. 2011, www.the-numbers.com/movie/Help-The#tab=summary.