Whether or not it wins an armload of Oscars this Sunday, The Help — although criticized in some circles as a sugarcoated view of the Jim Crow era —  has already scored big with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

ColorLines reports that the organization has invested in the cultural moment created by the popular story about black maids in the South and is using it to advocate for the workers it represents.


Whatever the film’s shortcomings, anyone with an ounce of strategic sense would have taken full advantage of this opening in the popular culture, and NDWA is not short on strategic sense.

But their intervention did more than take advantage of a cultural moment — it shaped that moment to mitigate against the potential negative effects on a national audience. From an organizer’s perspective, there is a danger embedded in stories of triumph over segregationists, especially a story as prettily presented as this one. Viewers develop little appreciation for the grit of struggle, imagine that the era was less horrifying than it really was, and thus imagine that ending such practices was both more easily achieved and more permanently effective than the struggle’s reality. NDWA’s intervention around “The Help” created a chance that viewers would walk away inspired to take action on the unfinished justice agenda of the Civil Rights Movement, rather than crowing about how much things have changed for the better …

The film’s focus on African American domestic workers gave the organization a link to the core of their issue. Domestic workers are excluded from parts of the National Labor Relations Act as a result of compromises FDR’s administration made with Southern politicians in the 1930’s to protect the interests of segregationists. “The movie allowed us to talk about that history,” said Poo, “and how the lack of respect that domestic workers have in this country is tied to the history of slavery and Jim Crow.” That history is at the crux of the lesson guide the Alliance designed for self-organized Oscar parties.

Read more at ColorLines.