In Defense of The Help
Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in The Help.

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in a scene from “The Help”

UPDATE 8/29/2011: I’ve seen the movie—with my grandmother and other women of her generation who were ‘The Help’—and after a post-film discussion with them, I still stand by everything I said below. Listen to their experiences.

I came away from the book with a different take.  Here are some things I plan to keep in mind when I see the movie:Since the movie’s release on Aug. 10, there has been an abundance of criticism about The Help.  The first outcry of historical and cultural inaccuracy I read came from The Association of Black Women Historians.  They saw the maids as “a resurrection of Mammy,” and they had a problem with the absence of the Civil Rights Movement, among several other issues.


  1. As with any film, the director and producers are the ones who decide what story is told.  It’s their baby, not yours.  The movie The Help is written and directed by Tate Taylor, a white man who is also a long-time friend of the book’s author, Kathryn Stockett.  Like Stockett, Taylor was raised in Mississippi by black women.  He said in an interview with Script magazine that he didn’t want to write “a civil rights movie.”  He wanted the movie to be about relationships.  As a white man who was a white child during the Civil Rights Movement, maybe he felt a civil rights story was one he couldn’t tell.  He was privy to his relationship with his caretaker, not her activism, which may not have existed.  Maybe he came at it from a marketing angle and knew what my first screenwriting teacher at UCLA told me as I wrote my first female-bonding chick flick: Movies about relationships between women are rare, but when they’re released, they are wildly popular.  I don’t think either of those reasons is true, but even if they are, it’s his movie.  I have realized that I will have to write, and probably fund, the plays and movies I want to see.  (Side note: This, of course, has never stopped me from criticizing Tyler Perry.  But I can no longer figure out if he writes the movies he wants to see or if he writes what he thinks his fans want to see.)
  2. The book is about relationships.  It is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement in Jim Crow Mississippi, but it’s not the focus of the book.  The book is about the complicated relationships the help have with their bosses.  The passages about what’s going on in the South and in the world—sit-ins at Woolworth’s, King’s March on Washington, the Vietnam War, President Kennedy’s assassination—give you the setting.  It’s a turbulent time, which makes the maids’ Stockholm-like situation—the love they feel for the white families they work for and the suppressed desire to change their society—more tumultuous.  Perhaps when I see the movie, I’ll think that there wasn’t enough of The Movement in the film, and I’ll have a list of quick, simple ways more of the images we’ve come to know from the era could be added.  But I think the book gives it enough attention.
  3. Taylor would have written a four-hour epic if he had included everything in the book.  Really.  He tried.
  4. We need to stop kidding ourselves about the level of participation in The Civil Rights Movement.  The ABWH writes that Jackson’s black community’s reaction to Medgar Evers’ assassination is “a far cry from the courage demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight (emphasis mine).”  We like to think every black person in the nation participated in the Civil Rights Movement, but it’s not true.  In lieu of putting their lives in danger and risking all they had, most people sent money and prayers.  We wouldn’t have the rights we have today without those contributions, but let’s not act like everyone braved vicious police dogs and fire hoses.
  5. It’s about time someone looked at the role of white women in the segregation era.  While I guess you could pitch the novel as Mean Girls set in Jim Crow South, the individual acts of meanness at which the ABWH scoffs were what domestic workers faced every day.  Yes, white supremacist organizations, ardent segregationists, politicians and police created the kind of walk-on-eggshells fear throughout the South that makes terrorists proud.  But their wives and daughters controlled the household and often controlled their husbands’ actions. (What a man won’t do to please or defend his wife…) White women in the story inflicted on their household servants the every day pain that can wear a person down.  The high position in society of the majority of those women also reveals just how systemic racism was—still is—and how calculated and conspiratorial the effort to keep blacks in their place was.  Demanding your black maid pee outside or in some place away from the whites isn’t a burning cross in the yard or a bomb in a church, but the goal is the same.  The way white women communicated their message isn’t a story people are usually willing to tell, and Stockett tells it well.
Disclaimers: 1) I haven’t seen the movie yet.  I intend to see it on a special outing, which you’ll read about later.  Because of that, and because I wanted to finish reading the book before the outing, I’ve read very few reviews thoroughly.  I finished the book on Aug. 21.  2) As a writer who has received formal instruction in the art of screenwriting but who obviously is writing nonfiction right now instead of movies, I tend to have a different take on the challenges screenwriting in general and adaptations in particular present.
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2 thoughts on “In Defense of The Help

  1. Dear M, I have neither read the book nor seen the movie — and may never do either. But I wanted to make some comments about the reviews and your defense of the film. I think the ABWH review made a mistake some historians make. They often debate about whether or not *fiction* accurately represents the past instead of trying to ascertain why authors would tell the story in a particular way in their own present. I think that’s a mistaken burden to put on fiction. Though I get the motivation: people watch historical dramas and often think they are “what really happened.” But the solution is to increase media literacy, not to criticize fiction writers for not being historians. (And, although they’d really hate me for saying this: even History is based on fragments of the past that require interpretation. It’s pretty close to well-informed dreaming and not too far from fiction.)

    I’m a little concerned about your “most people sent money and prayers” to help with the civil rights movement because that does not seem accurate to me. What are you basing that on? While that may be true of people who were not in the Deep South, my understanding is that the protests and marches there were mass events. So, it is likely that black residents of the Deep South participated in boycotts and marches, even though not all of them sat-in (mostly college students did that) or went to jail.

    I have to say, though — I can’t say I’m not as patient as you are with white writers and directors. It’s not shocking that one would not want to write “a civil rights movie,” and instead focus on relationships. I would counter, first, that it’s impossible for a movie with *characters* not to be about their relationships. Even movies about government are still about relationships between gov’t officials. So it’s a false dichotomy.

    But I’d also say *of course* they don’t want a movie about civil rights: Driving Miss Daisy, Long Walk Home, Mississippi Burning, and many other popular movies about the era either feature white characters as heroes or feature a black person whose only desire is to help the white person wake up and be less racist. They don’t want an education. They don’t want health care or a pension.

    I’d say that, metaphorically, these stories are a continuation of slavery. It’s just that the new unpaid labor is providing moral education for the reforming racist. To hell with that! I think “a civil rights movie” really means the main characters are black and the story is theirs. And that’s why most white writers are unwilling to write them and most white Americans (in this rightward drifting moment) are uninterested in seeing them. Because The Great Debaters, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, and other such films never made as big a splash as the white ones I mentioned earlier. I could go on but I will stop. I hope all is wonderful in your world.

    1. Well informed dreaming and not too far from fiction? Yes, I think historians would hate you for that.

      I am basing the money and prayers statement on a lecture I heard some time ago on the Civil Rights Movement. Vague citation, I know, so I contacted Dr. Blaine Hudson, Dean of Arts & Sciences and a former professor of African American history at the University of Louisville for a fact check. He said, “Your statement is correct. The number of folks who actually participated in demonstrations of one kind or another was relatively small. Others preferred lower risk means of supporting the movement. Still others were very uncomfortable with the movement itself.” I also noted to him that I’m not talking about a few select mass protests, like Selma, which drew people from all over the country.

      I don’t think characters make every movie about relationships. Relationships always exist, and sometimes they make us care what happens to the characters, but they’re not the focus of every movie. Consider Transformers. I was supposed to care about the Autobots because they were friends with the main character, and I was supposed to care about the girlfriend because the main character loved her. But the focus of that movie was special effects.

      I guess I’m more patient with the white writers because I haven’t seen many help the white racists evolve movies. I’ve seen more that fit your definition of civil rights. And I don’t think The Help fits the former definition. I don’t think the domestic workers’ only desire is that the villains wake up, and in the book, that’s not their goal. It’s not as obvious as the protagonist’s goal to be a writer, but the maids do want things to change, to see at least one society woman get the wrath of God she deserves, and for their state to accept integration. And they want one character’s children to go to college.

      Everything’s dandy in my world. Sort of. Hope all is wonderful in yours.

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