Alumni examine history behind ‘The Help’


University alumni and students watched and discussed Oscar-nominated film “The Help” on Friday, which focuses on the experiences of African-American maids during the 1960s.

The event, sponsored by the Rutgers University Alumni Association, is part of a series of educational programs for University alumni, but was the first film screening and lecture the organization has hosted.

Donna Donahue, the RUAA assistant director of Alumni Programs, said the film was an appealing way for people to discuss the history of black women in the United States.

“We were trying to find a way to talk about African-American history and women’s history, but in a way that would capture audiences of all genres, ages and genders,” she said.

The film screening was followed by a lecture from University history professor Deborah White, who discussed the film’s historical relevance to the Jim Crow laws in the South and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the civil rights movement.

“In the segregated South, whites believed black women passed diseases between dirty black neighborhoods and pure white homes,” White said. “Earlier in the century, some proposed licensing legislation that forced black women to have their homes inspected or subjected themselves to medical examinations by public health nurses and social workers.”

White compared the film’s portrayal of southern white women who employed domestic workers to that of a white woman interviewed in 1988, who, based on experiences with her black maid, shared the beliefs of the segregated South about black women and disease.

“To [“The Help” author Kathryn Stockett’s] credit, she has exposed these seemingly innocent women,” she said. “She has forced us to think more critically at the real-life Jane Stafford of the world. Dare I say, she has forced everyone who employs domestic workers to look more critically at themselves.”

Douglass College alumna Bernice Venable shared the experience her mother had working as a maid for a white family around the same time “The Help” takes place.

“They considered my mother a member of the family. Long after she passed away … they kind of watched over me and my father and my brother to see how things were going and that lasted all the way to when I went to Douglass College,” Venable said.

Venable said the film highlights the real personalities of hired help, which reminded her of her childhood.

“It still lingers in [the systems of] those of us who are women of color who lived during the time when our parents … worked in the domestic work,” she said. “‘The Help’ brings out … what is really in our hearts no matter what we look like.”

Fran McClain, a Newark College of Arts and Sciences alumna, said the film was a good start in exploring the lives of black domestic workers in the 20th century, but recommends audiences read the book as well.

“The one thing that you really don’t see in there is how these women really interacted with their own children,” McClain said. “You don’t know, you don’t see anything about their care of their own children. … The book goes into much more detail — that movie is very superficial.”

Shelley Alexander, a Douglass College alumna, said the movie is popular because the story is told from a different perspective than how it is traditionally told.

“I think it’s … popular because somebody white wrote it. When we have movies that come out that are produced by black people or written from a black perspective it seems like it is more geared to a black audience,” she said. “White people don’t go to the theater in droves to see a black movie.”

McClain said the novel was also more popular among white audience members.

“I heard about this book ‘The Help’ from one of my white classmates,” she said. “I didn’t hear too many black people talking about it.”

The Association of Black Women Historians have criticized the film for oversimplifying the experiences of black domestic workers and its depictions of African-American men, McClain said.

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