Understanding ‘The Help’: Fiction vs. Reality

Understanding The Help, Fiction vs. Reality, is The Help racist, the help problematic

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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:

 

To ‘Joy My Freedom- Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter

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.

 

 

Comments

  1. Glenn Robinson says

    Laila, I agree. I know so many people who like to sweep true U.S. history and even current brutality under the rug. It's strange that horror movies are so popular – but these fictional accounts of U.S. history are cleaned up so as to not make their (mostly European-American) audience feel uncomfortable by implicating them as participants in historical U.S. oppression.

  2. says

    Laila, you make a good point about The Help being all that some folks can handle on a Saturday night. There are many, many white folks who have so little experience with people outside of white culture that they don't have any knowledge of their privilege or of the hardships that privilege has caused for others. If we start them off with the hard facts, many will get so defensive that they will just close themselves off to reality. This does seem like a good intro for those people. 

    Apparently the book includes a lot more historically accurate detail (but I haven't read it yet.) I did watch an interview with the author of the book, and she admits to being one of those privileged people who didn't even recognize her privilege. She said she started writing the book at age 35 and it was the first time she ever realized that the woman who worked in her house had a life outside of her white family's. It was the first time she'd ever considered that the black woman she'd loved as a child might not have really loved her back because in reality, she was an employee and not a respected member of the family. So many white people are just oblivious. I think the book/movie can serve as a starting point for people and hope that it will open the door for them to consider more accurate historical representations of the Jim Crow era. It has sure started a lot of dialogue–and I can only see that kind of eye-opening dialogue as a good thing if people are finally seeing things from a new perspective.

  3. Douglas says

    Maybe I was just too blind to have noticed before, but 'The Help' did introduce me to just how vile some white people were at that time. I dont think I could have dealt with the situation if it had been presented as being worse. At least, not as an introduction. It was like having gotten slapped in the face with a wet trout after only having read descriptions of it before… 'The Help' kinda helped me wake up a little. Now I plan on reading the books you recommended.

  4. LailaLacy says

    Thank you for your comments, amd thank you for being open minded and willing to learn about perspectives that differ from your own. We're all in this together.