In the book the story is told from three different viewpoints, and the reader gets to see what the three characters experience. I have not seen the film yet, but based on word of mouth, and the fact that people are debating Viola Davis's characters category placement, the main focus in the film is Rita's point of view. I will not pardon the book because like the ABWH states black women are and have been more than maids in history, and their common representation in literature and film has been as the caretakers for white children. I have not been able to see the film yet to judge for myself because my job has kept me chained to my desk working 12 hour days, but I will soon be judging for myself.
I think the ABWH has a point in regards to common portrayals which can influence the outside perspective of audiences. White audiences are used to a Gone with the Wind type representation with black women. The character in Gone with the Wind was called mammy who was played by Hattie McDaniel, and she was the first black person to win and Academy Award (she won in the Supporting Actress category.) In her post Gone with the Wind career McDaniel was pigeon holed and even though she was an Academy Award winner she was never offered better roles.
Then there was the first black actress who won an Oscar in Best Actress category, Halle Berry for Monster's Ball. Berry plays an inarticulate poor, "bad mother" whose husband is on death row at the beginning of the film, and she needs the love of a good white man to help her out. The context of this role is awful. Berry gives a great performance (again I cannot discredit the actress). Was this representation of black women really the first performance that deserved to win this award? I think Hollywood executives need to challenge the common representation and work towards carving out roles that portray black women in the different roles they play.
Here is a list of the black actresses nominated for Academy Awards
Lead Actress (8 nominations and 1 winner)
Dorothy Dandrige-Carmen Jones (1954)
Diana Ross-Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Cicely Tyson-Sounder (1972)
Diahann Carroll-Claudine (1974)
Whoopi Goldberg-The Color Purple (1985)
Angella Bassett-What's Love got to do with it? (1993)
Halle Berry-Monster's Ball (2001)-Winner
Gaborey Sidibe-Precious (2009)
Supporting Actress (15 nominees and 4 Winners- 3 of within the last 20 years)
Hattie McDaniel-Gone with the Wind (1939)-Winner
Ethal Waters-Pinky (1949)
Juanita Moore-Imitation of Life (1959)
Beach Richards-Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967)
Alfre Woodard-Cross Creek (1983)
Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey-The Color Purple (1985)
Whoopi Goldberg-Ghost (1990)-Winner
Marianne Jean-Baptiste-Secrets and Lies (1996)
Queen Latifah-Chicago (2002)
Sophie Okenedo-Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Jennifer Hudson-Dreamgirls (2006)-Winner
Ruby Dee-American Gangster (2007)
Viola Davis-Doubt (2008)
Taraji P. Henson-The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Now the Academy Awards are not the final say on quality film, but within the film industry they are regarded as the award that means the most and is the most well known worldwide. The amount of nominees and winners shows the true barometer of the portrayal of black women in film and the quality work available. Throughout the 83 years of the Academy there have been 10 actresses nominated each year (making 830 actress nominations) and only 23 of those nominees were black women (percentage wise that is only 3 %). That percentage is abysmal.
Viola Davis is brilliant actress, give her more to do Hollywood! Davis is more than Julia Roberts best friend in Eat, Pray, Love. I know The Help is a divisive film for many groups, and I agree. There needs to be more films out there that provide black women with a different voice. Hollywood is powerful, and the images they create have lasting impressions. I hope that Hollywood takes more risks and tells the different stories of black women, but with The Help being successful I fear that executives will continue to tell the same story, that black women were once the help.