Monday, August 22, 2011

The Help: A simple movie about a complicated time

Back in June 2010, I wrote about the book The Help and my connection with Mississippi, and now that the movie is out I wanted to revisit the subject. M and I went to see the movie yesterday, and it was pretty much what expected. The story didn't stray too much from the book and their weren't many surprises. In that way the movie did an excellent job of capturing the essence of the book in only 2+ hours.

However, something I didn't address then and wanted to bring up was the criticisms of the book/movie. My brother-in-law linked the following on his facebook page: "open statement to the fans of The Help."  Also, there is a good editor's note in the Jackson Free Press called "Of anger and alternative endings" by Donna Ladd. I recommend you read both, since they should present another side of the story.  Below are the key quotes I thought needed highlighting:

Association of Black Women Historians:
"The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it."
"Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture."
"Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of the white employers."
"Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi."
From Donna Ladd:
"The movies are a problem because they dredge up a white version of a much more complicated past (and present) rich with courageous black heroes finding the faith and courage to reclaim a family structure destroyed by slavery, and ultimately changing this nation. But Hollywood seems to believe it takes a white hero saving poor blacks to sell the story. An occasional film like that would be fine - it did happen, too - but it is an injustice when only a victim narrative breaks through."
"...I know our history well enough to see how the movie's naive ending softens our history for newer generations."
My response back is that this was a fiction story from a white, Jackson Prep graduate and of course there would be criticisms of its omissions and authenticity. Kathryn Stockett wrote a novel with a compelling storyline that wasn't meant to be a historical textbook. I agree that she could have done more to address the complicated and volatile world of Mississippi in the 1960s. Also, her research on the subject wasn't at the level that I would trust her to teach a course on the Civil Rights movement. However, I don' think her incomplete knowledge of that time period should prevent her from writing a book with that as the background.

However, my response back (my criticism of the criticism) is that it is a story. It might be a simple story with *uncomplicated characters that lack depth, but in the end it gets by with a interesting plot. It doesn't tell the full story or even most of the story, but instead gives a small glimpse into the author's own portrayal of her home state. She shouldn't be criticized too much for not not including every detail of that time period, since as far as I can tell she never claimed this was the one stop shop for all information about the Civil Rights movement. Also, I disagree with the claim that it was a story that was nostalgic about the past. In no way do I think she was glamouring that time period and if you asked her I am sure she would be disappointed if people read the book and thought that in any way she was endorsing that lifestyle.

*Characters are either bad or good. In the real world people exist as both bad and good people, and I imagine that was even more pronounced in Mississippi in the 1960s. It would have been nice to seen good characters acting without the purest intentions and bad characters not always portrayed as 100% bad. The character development is the main reason I consider the book/movie to be simple.

Stockett tried to write a fictional novel, where the main character was a a white writer who wrote a book called The Help before moving to New York. Sound familiar because it is basically Kathryn Stockett's biography? It seems clear that it is a story of what she would have liked to have done if she was born in 1939 and not 1969. She has a strong connection to Mississippi and wrote a novel based on her viewpoint. I can relate to that, and I do not judge her for writing the story.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

I whole heartedly agree. The movie was an awesome adaptation of the book and should be taken for what it is, a story...not a historical account of this time. It's maddening to hear people up in arms about this movie's popularity and complaining about everything down to the way the black women spoke in the movie...especially when the people complaining have never set foot in the South. Thanks for the post, Kevin and keep up the good work.