As a fan of Kathryn Stockett’s book and the movie adaption now playing in theaters across the country, I have been following with thoughtful interest the backlash surrounding both. Because in addition to being a fan of the book and the movie, I also consider myself to be someone who is sensitive to the cultural, societal, racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation and other differences among and between people. I hope, too, that I have a brain, which I use as often as possible.
Today alone I have read 3 separate, impassioned essays denouncing The Help as dangerous and ill-conceived; historically inaccurate; revisionist; emotionally manipulative; condescending to African Americans, etc. The list of grievances is long, and it would be a mistake for anyone to arbitrarily dismiss these concerns. They have certainly given me pause to stop and think and re-evaluate my favorable impression of a book and a movie that I found moving and worthwhile. The essays I’ve seen today include an open statement by the Association of Black Women Historians; commentary by Melissa Harris Perry, a Tulane University professor; and an essay by Roxanne Gay on The Rumpus, an online magazine, which includes this quote: “If you go to the theatre without your brain (just leave it in the glove compartment), The Help is a good movie.” Each piece presented compelling reasons why The Help is lacking–severely lacking–in historical accuracy, cultural accuracy, racial sensitivity, and reality. I recommend reading each one. But after reading these essays, I still recommend reading The Help and seeing the movie, too.
I am definitely going to give this more thought; however, my initial, almost immediate response was one of surprise only because I, personally, didn’t expect The Help to deliver a historically accurate depiction of the personal and social turmoil experienced by African Americans, particularly women, in the deep South during the time of The Civil Rights Movement. What I took away was the story of these particular women in a particular situation and their relationship to each other. I thought it was an exploration of racism, hypocrisy and, above all, courage. I didn’t watch the movie or read the book and note what was not there. I didn’t see Skeeter as the white heroine who saved the day. I didn’t view Celia as the white woman who convinced Minny to leave her husband. They all saved each other in different ways–black and white alike–and they all exhibited courage in different ways. I would have watched a documentary or newsreel footage, or read historical documents or courtroom testimony if I had wanted to make sure that I had all the facts about racial oppression in the 1960s. I don’t think I can ever hope to begin to understand the reality of living through that time as an African American.
What I saw onscreen and read in the book was not a “feel good” tale of any sort. The book and the movie did not make me feel good. I was horrified by the treatment of black domestic workers, and if this depiction was “trivialized“, then I know for sure that the reality can only be worse and more disheartening. If The Help provides a “deeply sanitized view of the segregated south in the early 1960s“, then I know for sure that the reality was simply beyond my comprehension. I didn’t believe without question the depiction of race relations, or the use of dialect, or the absence of profound violence like lynching, or rape, or house-burning. What I did believe was the characters as individuals capable of doing great things and capable of establishing relationships despite cultural, societal, and racial barriers. I believed that the heart of the movie was in the hearts of Minny, Aibileen, Celia, and Skeeter. And I came away believing for sure that women like Hilly still exist today.
I guess the book and the movie made me think about how much I don’t know about the reality of that time or about the real state of race relations today rather than convince me that we have come such a long way since then. I viewed the movie through the same lens that I view any other character-driven movie: were the characters strong and smart and real and capable of making me feel and think? Maybe I viewed the movie through the wrong lens. And that is something I will continue to ponder.