Understanding ‘The Help’: Fiction vs. Reality
For the last couple of weeks I have watched as both admirers and critics have frothed at the mouth over the release of the Touchstone Pictures/ DreamWorks film version of Kathryn Stockett’s fictional novel, “The Help”. The film has been praised as a delightfully insightful piece of work, as well as being clobbered as a dreadful misrepresentation of American history. Is it possible for both perspectives to be correct?
I must admit that the novel which preceded the film did not and still does not pique my interest, primarily, because I do not read very much fiction. There are two stacks of books by my bed awaiting my attention and not one of them is a novel. To be even more frank, I wasn’t too jazzed about seeing the movie, either. Although I appreciated the cast and was pretty confident in their ability to deliver quality work, a fictional, mildly comical view of this subject matter was, to me, a big turn off. However, as the debate intensified, the film began to seem like something that I could be OK with devoting a couple hours of my life to.
So, I watched it.
My initial reaction was powerfully…lukewarm. Although I felt the actor’s performances were excellent, I could not connect myself to the characters or the plot in any meaningful way because what I was seeing just seemed so incomplete, as though only half a story was being told to me. Of course, that’s because it was.
Audiences watching this movie are getting an incomplete perspective of the true horrors of the Jim Crow South, period. This movie feels like watching a pasteurized and homogenized version of civil rights era Mississippi, where bad things happen, but nothing too bad. Injustices are just that, and institutionalized brutality is threatened, but rarely consummated. One scene that particularly stands out to me as an example of this<SPOILER ALERT!> is when the character Minny realizes that her employer’s husband has learned that she has been secretly hired by his wife, and as he approaches her on the side of the road, she grabs a large stick to defend herself. The manner in which the scene is portrayed is mildly comedic, the audience laughs. However, the occurrences of rapes, lynchings, and all other means of brutality exercised on black people during this period, especially in Mississippi, would truly arouse mortal terror were the situation real.
The film presents us a cleaned up, Disney-fied perspective of civil rights era Mississippi. That said, perhaps that is all some folks can handle on a Saturday night. Or, maybe to a generation who has been shielded by a notion of a post-racial America (chuckle), the true horrors of Jim Crow are just too unpalatable. And for those folks, this movie might serve a very significant purpose as an introduction to a portion of American history that we all wish was fictitious. But it wasn’t. So to those folks I say, enjoy The Help. Have a slice of pizza after it’s over, then head over to your local bookstore or library and help yourself to these titles recommended by the Association of Black Women Historians:
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 might have signaled the end of slavery, but the beginning of freedom remained far out of sight for most of the four million enslaved African Americans living in the South. Even after the Civil War, when thousands of former slaves flocked to southern cities in search of work, they found the demands placed on them as wage-earners disturbingly similar to those they had faced as slaves.
Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow- Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present by Jaqueline Jones
Winner Of The Brown Publication Prize Of The Association Of Black Women Historians. The forces that shaped the institution of slavery in the American South endured, albeit in altered form, long after slavery was abolished. Toiling in sweltering Virginia tobacco factories or in the kitchens of white families in Chicago, black women felt a stultifying combination of racial discrimination and sexual prejudice. And yet, in their efforts to sustain family ties, they shared a common purpose with wives and mothers of all classes. In Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, historian Jacqueline Jones offers a powerful account of the changing role of black women, lending a voice to an unsung struggle from the depths of slavery to the ongoing fight for civil rights.
Living In, Living Out- African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
International in scope, this series of non-fiction trade paperbacks offers books that explore the lives, customs and thoughts of peoples and cultures around the world. This text looks at African American domestics and the great migration. This book is a wonderful account of how African-American women made it at the turn of the century. The book details the lives of women who made a difference in the lives of the people and children in their families. This book show just how strong Black women are. It allows readers to see that they had the strength face adversity.