The Help: Ahistorical Hollywood feel good story or a teaching moment?
OK, so I just published Issue 19 over the weekend and received Opinion8ed2’s first reader-inspired blog thread. You may not have noticed Eileen’s contribution (it’s just over a few inches to the right) but she initiated a discussion on a very interesting/difficult subject, i.e., the issue of good old American racism specifically of the Jim Crow variety in 1963 Jackson Mississippi as covered in the recent novel and Hollywood interpretation of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. It’s a novel that I know more than a few of you have read and probably many have seen in the theater.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it is a fictionalized account of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an upper middle class young white woman who wants to be a writer and is inspired to tell the story of what she recognizes as racist treatment of African American women working as maids in the white households of America, but especially acute in Mississippi. In my reply I maintain that the story needs telling now more than ever and that although The Help is actually Skeeter’s story, Stockett successfully introduces the realities of racism to a whole new generation of Americans and is a reminder for the rest of us.
Just as Eileen maintains, African American professor and journalist Melissa Harris-Perry feels the story sugar coats the horrors of racism and doesn’t adequately deal with the depths of its true evil (see her video at http://www.rawstory.com/rawreplay/2011/08/melissa-harris-perry-the-help-movie-ahistorical-and-deeply-troubling/).
It’s true that the principal symbol of Southern racism is portrayed in terms of the indignities of segregated rest rooms rather than rape. And the cold blooded murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, shot in front of his Jackson home on June 12, 1963 is peripheral to the story and is mentioned only in passing.
But racism is still the central theme of the book/movie and Skeeter gradually begins to see it engrained in her culture everywhere she looks. None of her friends or family is immune to its reach and her awakening is not an easy adjustment. Her project is based on winning the trust and confidence of African American women to share their personal stories and that too, realistically does not come easily. Overshadowed by the debate over its politics, is the craftsmanship of Stockett’s writing and along with director Tate Taylor, successful adaptation to the screen.
So, let’s hear what you think. Send a blog comment and stop back for a real discussion.