Two years ago, shortly after Kathryn Stockett 's novel The Help was released, I wrote a review of the book for Swampland. I never published the review because I was ambivalent about the novel, and everyone I knew was singing its praises. The Help quickly made the reading list of book clubs across the nation. I shelved my review for another day.
Last year I was in Greenwood, MS, when they were filming part of the movie. I met Leslie Jordan (Mr. Blackly), Mike Vogel (Johnny) and others. I remembered my review and considered posting it, but once again, I decided against it.
This past week I went to see the movie directed by Stockett's childhood friend Tate Taylor. I was impressed. The Help is a superbly executed film, and the reception of the movie by the audience in my small southern town was reminiscent of the reception of the book---total and unqualified enthusiasm. Folks were talking about The Help when they went in the theatre and they were talking about The Help when they came out. Folks have been talking about The Help for nearly three years. In many ways, that is a very good thing.
So why do white southerners love this book/movie so much and what does the African American community have to say about it?
First of all, many southerners who responded positively to the book saw it as giving voice to a group hitherto relegated to the role of "mammy." My liberal friends saw the book as according dignity and recognition to women who had spent their lives in other people's kitchens, raising other people's children, while their own personal and political situation grew increasingly worse and no one seemed to care. They viewed the story as one that had long needed telling, and it did not bother them that it was told by a white woman from Mississippi.
As for those who do not lean so far to the left, I observed that they were touched by deep memories of someone who had cared for them, cleaned for them, and cooked for them, and, whether they knew it or not at the time, were not equal in the community or under the law.
Regarding the response from the African American community, Professor Valerie Boyd of the University of GA entitles her review "The Help: A Feel-Good Movie for White People" and refers to the film as "a feel-good movie for a cowardly nation."
Professor Boyd writes, "In fact, the film ends on a falsely uplifting note, with Aibileen claiming to feel liberated after being fired while Skeeter plans to go shopping with her mother for a new wardrobe before starting her big new job in New York. Aibileen is now an unemployed maid, Skeeter is moving forward in her life of white privilege — and the filmmakers expect viewers to feel good about this. The problem is, many white viewers will."
Most of the criticism directed at the book and the wildly successful movie, stems from the following: resentment at the use of dialect ("You is kind. You is smart. You is important" is called by one reviewer "some of the worse dialogue ever"); at portraying black men either as wife-beating, family-deserting good-for-nothings or as Uncle Toms (Honoree' Fanonne Jeffers' review "Chocolate Breast Milk" ); and at the portrayal of African Americans in general. There is much being said about the book and the movie --and not all of it is complimentary.
Leonard Pitts, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, explores his "irresolute feelings" toward the film in his review for the Miami Herald entitled"The Help: An Uncertain Triumph." Pitts notes that The Help has met with a certain amount of scorn from some African Americans, a reaction that strikes him as "more reflexive than felt." He writes that Stockett's telling the story of a white misfit bonding with a black maid and helping her find her voice in a society that had rendered her mute may not be "a black power manifesto" but then "neither is it Birth of a Nation II."
So what, then is the source of Pitts' own irresolution? " I suspect," writes Pitts, " it traces to nothing more mysterious than the pain of revisiting a time and place of black subservience. And, perhaps, the sting of an inherited memory."
Pitts, whose own mother was "the help," concludes his review by saying, "It is Kathryn Stockett’s imperfect triumph to have understood this [that black women were not just walk on players in a white drama but fully formed characters with hopes and dreams of their own] and seeks to make others understand it, too." Then Pitts adds, " I think mom would have appreciated the effort."
My issue with Stockett's novel has to do with the book's central premise, i.e., that abused, disenfranchised, and terrorized black women would say anything to a 22- year- old white girl who was a member of the Junior League, much less put their lives and the lives of their family and loved ones in terrible jeopardy by revealing the dangerous secrets of their lives. I simply could not buy that thesis. I concur with Professor Valerie Boyd's assessment of the ending, but I see it as a conclusion that arises naturally out of the premise. I am not so sure that book/movie is so "feel-good" as most of us would like to think.
Despite my discomfort with the premise of the Stockett's novel and my nagging sense that something was terribly awry, I thought the book was well written, the characters well drawn, and the story provocative. Additionally, I have high praise for Tate Taylor's film. The casting was brilliant and the performances masterful. Taylor remained faithful to the novel without dwelling too much upon the racial violence that could have alienated the audience.
All told, I think the book/film, like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, has engendered important dialogue. Race, and by extension gender, is an extremely touchy issue, and whenever one ventures into controversial territory, one is asking for trouble. Tate Taylor may have made a better film that he realized, and I think the film (and perhaps the book) is not nearly so simplistic as we, white or black, have perceived it to be.
---Penne J. Laubenthal
Explore Further on Swampland