Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help is not only a bestseller but also a major motion picture. It opened second at the box office last week, bringing in $26 million. But just because the book and the movie are wildly popular doesn't mean The Help doesn't have detractors, among them the Association of Black Women Historians. The group has penned an open letter to fans of the work about a white woman writer who sways two black maids to tell their stories about life in Jim Crow Era Mississippi. In the letter, ABWH criticizes The Help for fueling stereotypes and featuring historical inaccuracies.
"The Help's representation of (black domestics) is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy--a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families," ABWH states. "...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."
It's impossible to know whether the 2009 novel or the film owe their success to a public eager to revisit the good ole' days when blacks knew their place and were relegated to subservient roles in the workplace. What I know from personal experience is that blacks and Latinos typically aren't thrilled to see themselves on screen playing maids, chauffeurs and the like. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with these professions. The problem is that actors of color are overrepresented in these roles, which leads to stereotyping. In real life, African Americans and Latinos aren't all maids, athletes, gardeners or gangsters. Communities of color want the representation of minorities to be broader in scope--both on screen and in literature.
Representation and stereotyping isn't ABWH's only concern about The Help, however. The group also takes issue with how racism and black activism are portrayed in the film. It argues that blacks are portrayed as confused and disorganized when a white supremacist kills civil rights activist Medgar Evers. In actuality, Mississippi blacks responded to his assassination by taking up his mantle.
In a New York Times piece on civil rights dramas, filmmaker Nelson George shared similar concerns. George argues that The Help fails to capture the harsh realities of the Jim Crow Era and the life-threatening work involved in being a civil rights activist. He says:
"The maids who tell...their stories speak of the risks they are taking, but the sense of physical danger that hovered over the civil rights movement is mostly absent....At its core the film is a small domestic drama that sketches in the society surrounding its characters but avoids looking into the shadows just outside the frame."
Have you read the novel or seen the movie? Did The Help fall short in its portrayal of African Americans and of the civil rights movement?