Cover of The Help
08/12/2011 by Cynthia Wright
With Kathryn Stockett’s novel turned movie, The Help being released only on Wednesday, the buzz surrounding it has been enormous. The media has taken hold of it and reviews seem to be somewhat divided. Those that are familiar with the novel or the movie, I won’t give a synopsis – I’m here to discuss the issues surrounding this controversial movie.
Most of the outcries seem to be felt the most among the black community, where many have cited that Stockett being a white woman shouldn’t be telling stories about domestic workers during the 1960′s. After all, the subject matter is already quite tricky and rarely discussed within the black community to have Stockett address it, most felt it to be taboo. Not only that, it was quickly revealed that the way the author wrote the black characters compared to the white lead little to be desired. To me, it was reminiscent of how much of my extended family talked – it had little to do with their IQ but more about their educational options at the time.
Now as a black woman, I understand the issue and the resentment – do I necessarily agree? No, I don’t. The Help was one of the handful of books that I read literally in less than two days. What I took away from the story was a slice of fictional Southern life. Did some domestic workers behave that way to their bosses? Maybe. Was being a domestic worker seen as a joyous occasion by all that worked in that sector. I doubt it. Stories of the Deep South during Jim Crow were full of tragic images and heat-breaking stories but to fault The Help for not embodying all of that is probably not being true to what the author wanted for the book.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped various members of the black community from weighing with their harsh critiques.
Novelist Martha Southgate weighed in on both the novel and film chastising Hollywood for promoting such an off-based fantasy.
There have been thousands of words written about Stockett’s skills, her portrayal of the black women versus the white women, her right to tell this story at all. I won’t rehash those arguments, except to say that I found the novel fast-paced but highly problematic. Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.
The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight — and more important, it was not their idea.
She later compared Hollywood’s love of saving the black community in their appreciation of Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning. I have no issue with calling things out for being “white-washed” for Hollywood but I do not necessarily believe that both The Help and Mississippi Burning were out with that in entirely in mind. In particular this quote, “Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.” That statement is just asking for a fight and is a slap to the white men and women that stood by the black civil rights workers. I’m not sure what the author was trying to get at but unlike the black domestic workers, white people had the choice to take part in the civil rights movement. They wanted to help, it wasn’t something that they were made to feel that they were born and bred to do.
Never mind that the book is initially about an outcast who decides to help those that aren’t considered to have a voice – why, are we expecting this book to be an outright history lesson about the civil rights era? If the book was marketed as a civil rights book then yes, I would be upset but it wasn’t. It’s a story about three women that need each other – whether they would admit to it or not.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry went on a media rampage about the movie, appearing on MSNBC after live-tweeting her experience after the movie theater.
Excerpt from Mediate:
“This is not a movie about the lives of black women, as their lives were not, Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi…it was rape, it was lynching, it was the burning of communities. It is the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives, the pain, the anguish, the rape that they experienced.”
So, would most prefer to see a movie that revved up the horrors that domestic workers experienced at the hands of their bosses? Personally, I would find that hard to grasp because coming from family with roots in the Deep South – the images that Harris-Perry wanted conveyed would be true to all of my families Jim Crow history. So, does that make their stories any less relevant? I don’t believe so, which is why this fictional movie doesn’t offend me.
One of the few positive articles about the Stockett’s novel comes courtesy of Clutch magazine, where the author shares what she gleaned from the story.
We’re still mentally living in the bondage that almost kept Aibileen and the others from sharing their story. Like them, we’re complaining and waiting for the white man to get our story right instead of taking a stand and doing it ourselves. This book could very well be about NYC with all its rich white families hiring Caribbean nannies to watch their kids for minimum wage, or parts of Georgia where Confederate flags still proudly hang on front porches. It could very well be about today, with each of us still living in yesterday.
Hopefully, The Help will incite those in the black community enough to come out and start sharing our stories. I personally can’t wait to see this movie and I hope that any strong performance given in the movie will be rewarded come Oscar time.