The Depiction of Domestic Workers in 1960s America in "The Help": Historically Accurate? - Katie Hayes
The film The Help was based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. One of the key pieces of history portrayed in it was the experience of Black domestic workers in 1960s America. Specifically, the film focuses on maids during the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. It also brings light to Medgar Evers, an African American activist and NAACP leader, who worked towards gaining rights for African Americans and aiding in their fight to end segregation. There is a particular scene in the film in which the character Skeeter and two maids are seen watching Evers’ address. Later on, the news of Evers’ assassination drives Skeeter, a journalist, to interview the maids for their stories. This event gives the domestic workers a chance to tell their stories and perspectives of living as maids and people of color. In terms of the film’s overall accuracy in the depiction of the treatment, daily life, and descriptions of Black domestic workers, and the events of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America, it was very accurate to the time period it was set in.
First of all, Black women during this period had trouble accessing jobs outside of domestic service. At the time, they were considered the new immigrants of the North and employers preferred to hire them because they thought they would accept lower wages than White servants. In the film, the Black domestic workers live in Mississippi which is the South. However, the desperation for work and acceptance of lower wages was shown to be accurate in the film because the servants working for them were being paid very little, barely enough to survive and feed their children at home. These jobs were all they had to survive as employment in the mid-20th-century Civil Rights era. For Blacks, employment opportunities in general was limited still. To get by, domestic servants both in the film and in history had to work daily with barely any days to rest for long hours and little pay.
Additionally, Black servants were also seen to be described as “infinitely cleaner than the white Irish, both at work and personally; they are more self-respecting and better mannered—more agreeable in manners;...[they are] capable of the very highest cultivation of manner” (Du Bois 1899, 487-88) by an employer interviewed by W.E.B Du Bois’ assistant for his sociological study The Philadelphia Negro (1899). This study is mentioned and quoted in the journal article “Moving with the Women: Tracing Racialization, Migration, and Domestic Workers in the Archive. By making this point, he shows the satisfactory qualities Black domestic workers had that white Irish servants lacked. The film accurately depicts this description because the black maids are shown as respectful and polite to the white Americans they are serving. Due to being viewed as inferior to the white families they are working for, they may face harsh punishments or possibly lose their job if they do not behave in such a manner. In order to not be treated or exploited worse than they already were facing, it was crucial to behave a certain way around white Southerners. To the maids in the film, their jobs are everything and they cannot afford to be fired as they are already in a position of struggling to get by day by day.
Next, the relationships between White employers and Black domestic workers that were portrayed in the film were fairly accurate with some exceptions. The general relationship in the film was the White employers being and acting racist towards the Black domestic workers. There was one relationship in the film where one Black maid was treated with respect and not as inferior to her white employer. The maid and her employer had a pretty amicable relationship and treated each other fairly. It was surprising to see this particular sort of relationship being portrayed in the film because in all the other relationships, the white employer was a person of higher class status than their domestic worker. This kind of Black domestic worker-White employer relationship was how it was really like in the past. Despite the obvious inferiority of the Back domestic workers, many of them, if not all domestics became part of the white family. In the film, this part of history is not really portrayed. Even though the maids would often stay with the families for many years to raise the children, once they were no longer needed, they would be let go and move on to work for another family. This fact was also common in actual history involving white families and Black domestic workers. White women in the South viewed Black women as stronger, more “natural” mothers and often entrusted their children with them to be like a mother surrogate. In the film, this is seen particularly through the maid Aibileen and her relationship taking care of Mae Mobley, the daughter of her white employer. While her mother is hardly there to raise her Aibileen is entrusted with the responsibility of being her caretaker.
In actual history, Medgar Evers was gunned down in 1963 by an assassin's bullet and did not live to see the major achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. He was involved in the early desegregation of Mississippi higher education. Inspired by the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, he applied for law school but was rejected. He then was appointed field secretary for the NAACP and organized a boycott downtown and a protest with nine black students from Tougaloo College to try to racially integrate Jackson’s main public library. This was the first major act of civil disobedience. Lunch sit-ins and voter registration drives started in the city soon after this occurred. The impact that his death has on the Black community as a whole is portrayed similarly in the film. In the film, a man is shot and is later identified on the news as Medgar Evers. The aftermath of his murder portrayed in the film briefly is shown to be chaotic for the nation. The actual aftermath of Evers’ murder was just as chaotic and sparked a lot of anger. His murder led to widespread protests and the people’s fury fueled the March on Washington in August 1963. The assassination of Evers was also considered a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement and part of the big push for racial justice. After this event, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. By portraying the assassination of Evers and the impact it leaves accurately in the film, it gives the audience a clear depiction of historical events that actually unfolded in during the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.
To sum up my thoughts on the accuracy and depiction of the film The Help, I think it was more accurate than not in the depiction of the events of that particular time period in America and how the servants were characterized and treated. However, I do agree that “the sense of physical danger that hovered over the Civil Rights movement is largely absent” as film critic Nelson George states.  Despite certain details about the Civil Rights Movement being left out, I think the film is an overall good depiction of Black servants’ experiences in the 1960s. It depicts scenes of segregated toilets and the ways Black servants were seen below white Southerners in society. I think that the incorporation of public figures like Medgar Evers was a good addition to show the importance of him and other figures in the Civil Rights Movement impacted the Black community at the time.
 Taylor, Tate, director. The Help. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2011.
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 Tucker, Susan. "A Complex Bond: Southern Black Domestic Workers and Their White Employers." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 9, no. 3 (1987): 6-13. Accessed December 13, 2020. doi:10.2307/3346254.
 "[Dedication: Medgar Wiley Evers]." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 54 (2006): 1. Accessed November 23, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25073558.
 Blakemore, Erin. “How the Assassination of Medgar Evers Galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.” History & Culture, National Geographic, 12 June 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/history/reference/people/medgar-evers-assassination-galvanized-civil-rights-movement/.
 McWhorter, John, ed. “'The Help' Isn't Racist. Its Critics Are.” The New Republic, August 17, 2011. https://newrepublic.com/article/93779/the-help-black-racism.