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.Â Here are some things I plan to keep in mind when I see the movie:Since the movieâ€™s release on Aug. 10, there has been an abundance of criticism about The Help.Â The first outcry of historical and cultural inaccuracy I read came from The Association of Black Women Historians.Â They saw the maids as â€œa resurrection of Mammy,â€ and they had a problem with the absence of the Civil Rights Movement, among several other issues.
- As with any film, the director and producers are the ones who decide what story is told.Â Itâ€™s their baby, not yours.Â The movie The Help is written and directed by Tate Taylor, a white man who is also a long-time friend of the bookâ€™s author, Kathryn Stockett.Â Like Stockett, Taylor was raised in Mississippi by black women.Â He said in an interview with Script magazine that he didnâ€™t want to write â€œa civil rights movie.â€Â He wanted the movie to be about relationships.Â As a white man who was a white child during the Civil Rights Movement, maybe he felt a civil rights story was one he couldnâ€™t tell.Â He was privy to his relationship with his caretaker, not her activism, which may not have existed.Â 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 theyâ€™re released, they are wildly popular.Â I donâ€™t think either of those reasons is true, but even if they are, itâ€™s his movie.Â I have realized that I will have to write, and probably fund, the plays and movies I want to see.Â (Side note: This, of course, has never stopped me from criticizing Tyler Perry.Â 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.)
- The book is about relationships. Â It is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement in Jim Crow Mississippi, but itâ€™s not the focus of the book. Â The book is about the complicated relationships the help have with their bosses.Â The passages about whatâ€™s going on in the South and in the worldâ€”sit-ins at Woolworthâ€™s, Kingâ€™s March on Washington, the Vietnam War, President Kennedyâ€™s assassinationâ€”give you the setting.Â Itâ€™s a turbulent time, which makes the maidsâ€™ Stockholm-like situationâ€”the love they feel for the white families they work for and the suppressed desire to change their societyâ€”more tumultuous.Â Perhaps when I see the movie, Iâ€™ll think that there wasnâ€™t enough of The Movement in the film, and Iâ€™ll have a list of quick, simple ways more of the images weâ€™ve come to know from the era could be added.Â But I think the book gives it enough attention.
- Taylor would have written a four-hour epic if he had included everything in the book.Â Really.Â He tried.
- We need to stop kidding ourselves about the level of participation in The Civil Rights Movement.Â The ABWH writes that Jacksonâ€™s black communityâ€™s reaction to Medgar Eversâ€™ assassination is â€œa far cry from the courage demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight (emphasis mine).â€Â We like to think every black person in the nation participated in the Civil Rights Movement, but itâ€™s not true.Â In lieu of putting their lives in danger and risking all they had, most people sent money and prayers.Â We wouldnâ€™t have the rights we have today without those contributions, but letâ€™s not act like everyone braved vicious police dogs and fire hoses.
- Itâ€™s about time someone looked at the role of white women in the segregation era.Â 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.Â Yes, white supremacist organizations, ardent segregationists, politicians and police created the kind of walk-on-eggshells fear throughout the South that makes terrorists proud.Â But their wives and daughters controlled the household and often controlled their husbandsâ€™ actions. (What a man wonâ€™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.Â The high position in society of the majority of those women also reveals just how systemic racism wasâ€”still isâ€”and how calculated and conspiratorial the effort to keep blacks in their place was.Â Demanding your black maid pee outside or in some place away from the whites isnâ€™t a burning cross in the yard or a bomb in a church, but the goal is the same.Â The way white women communicated their message isnâ€™t a story people are usually willing to tell, and Stockett tells it well.