Tap Dancing For The Help: The scramble to make the movie legit

Posted on August 5, 2011

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This may be a first even for Entertainment Weekly.
They have two African American actresses gracing their cover, promoting the release of The Help movie next week. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer share the honor with co-star Emma Stone.

EW Cover. I can't recall the last time I saw two African Americans on their cover

Link: http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/08/04/the-help-this-weeks-cover/

Then I took a look at the thumbnail insert promoting the article. And I noticed that Spencer and Davis have been cropped out (bottom right):

EW promotes The Help with an insert of Emma Stone sans Davis and Spencer

 

I was bothered at first, but after reading the accompanying quotes from both actresses, I was relieved to know I didn’t need to be upset for them. It was safe to laugh at the irony. In fact, aside from how wonderfully they’re made up on the cover as opposed to how aged they look in the film, I could tell they’ve tap danced to this tune before (items in bold are my doing):

“However beloved Stockett’s book may be, the subject of race — and of Hollywood’s complicated history with it — still hits a raw nerve in many circles. In fact, the film’s stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer often find themselves in the strange and unsettling position of having to defend their decision to play Aibileen and Minny, the proud maids at the heart of Stockett’s novel. “That’s what people bristle at: the maids,” Davis says in a no-holds-barred interview. “I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.” Spencer is even more emphatic. “It should not be ‘Why is Viola Davis playing a maid in 2011?’ I think it should be ‘Viola Davis plays a maid and she gives the f—ing performance of her life.’ “

 

There’s that word again - “Beloved”

I’ve got a post up on when the word is generally used. Oddly enough its liberally applied to some of the most racially offensive novels in literary history. Like The Three Golliwogs, Little Black Sambo, Dr. Dolittle, among others. See this post for a list of other novels bestowed with the title of “beloved.”

And its rarely, if ever bestowed when minorities overwhelmingly endorse something. It’s when whites do. That alone should be a tip off that something’s  wrong.

Because in the long, sad and many times violatile history of race in America, The Help is a symptom of what continues to be an inequitable balance of power and perception in this country, and not just regarding black/white relationships.

Unless validated by the dominant culture, subjects are routinely deemed lacking relevance. The EW article tap dances around the issues in the novel, again repeating weak objections that were easy to dismiss. What can’t be ignored are the larger issues, like the Medgar Evers error on Pg 277 and author Kathryn Stockett apparently believing that Evers had indeed been”bludgeoned” to the point that she repeats the claim in three known audio interviews. You can read about it and check out excerpts and links here

There’s also the issue of Stockett playing favorites by having a number of black males cast as the boogie men of segregation, but whitewashing how the men who benefited most from a century long system of oppression are labeled “good” and “honest” and only doing the will of their constituents by the author (Stuart Whitworth, Carlton Phelan and Senator Stoolie Whitworth respectively).

In doing this Kathryn Stockett made certain she wouldn’t piss off any southern males or alienate her potential fan base.

Excerpt:

“. . . this may sound ridiculous but I’m not criticizing the people that were living through those times and not questioning it. I’m just trying to examine it and also look at how far we’ve come.”

3:42 into Audio Interview hosted by Steve Bertrand of Barnes and Noble’s Meet the Writers (no transcript available)

Link: http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

 

 

Of the males linked romantically with the maids, Clyde is simply Plunk/Clyde, the fictional counterpart of the real life abusive husband of Stockett’s devoted maid Demetrie. When Clyde runs off and leaves Aibileen to raise their son alone, he’s painted in a nasty light with the dubious spoilt cootchie/venereal disease scene, and ridiculed when Aibileen teaches Treelore (gotta love that name) to henceforth refer to his father by the nickname of “Crisco.”

Connor is the male who impregnates and leaves Constantine. All that’s really know about him is what the self loathing Aibileen tells Skeeter, that Connor was as “black as me.”

And Leroy is just violent and vile. The three males paired with Stockett’s Mammyish triad of Aibileen, Constantine and Minny default into the worst stereotypes of minorities in fiction today.

Baby makers. Absentee fathers. Wanting as men.

Stockett does this knowing full well that African American males were the main targets of sadistic bigots who liked to demand black men show “respect”  by knowing their place.

Newspaper editor Alex Wilson being attacked by group of bigots

Gambling yet again that demeaning the African American male wouldn’t cause too much of a fuss in certain quarters, early reviews skimmed right over the mistakes Stockett made, zeroing in on the “sisterhood” between Skeeter and the caricatures of black women she’d created.

No amount of celebrity studded screenings will change these facts, or that both the publisher and the film studio believe if they trott out enough black people content to ignore the book’s flaws, then any dissent on the novel will all just go away.

It won’t.

Adding to the errors plaguing the novel is Stockett separating the maids based upon their skin color, weight and speech pattern. The author’s Mammy trio consists of Constantine, Aibileen and Minny, as all three women are described as dark, carrying weight and saddled with a thick dialect, while the lighter complexioned Lulabelle, the straight, no naps in her good hair Yule May, and trim of figure, but wearing pink lipstick in a shade that Skeeter and her gals favor, that being the articulate, uppity Gretchen, represent the perks having “Took back” can accomplish. Took back is a very old term. It was used when a black child would either come out lighter or darker, or with straight hair and it would be explained by saying the child must have “took back” from a grandparent with the same trait.

As far as Octavia Spencer getting all hot and bothered in the EW article, well, I’ll go into why it’s in her best interest to keep defending her role later on in this post. Spencer tap danced the hardest of all. I only hope in the end,  it was worth it.

If realizing Viola and Octavia had been cropped out wasn’t bad enough,  I spotted EW’s cover promo for The Hunger Games.

I’d previously read about the controversy surrounding the casting of the actress for the popular YA novel, specifically that the lead character is a brunette of undetermined ethnicity, but racially mixed. Which these days must be code for tanned white girl.

Hunger Games turns white actress into ethnically ambiguous

A fine young actress named Jennifer Lawrence won the role. Lawrence was nominated for an Oscar for her riveting performance in Winter’s Bone.

But it was the call sheet that concerned me, as it reportedly asked for a caucasian female. An EW article on The Hunger Games states:

“there was a predictable outcry from some young fans. They feared that Lawrence, the 20-year-old who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in last year’s harshly beautiful indie Winter’s Bone, was too old, too blond, too tall, too pale, too pretty to play the part of a teenager fighting to the death in a brutal government- ordered competition.”

Link: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20419951_20505102,00.html

How Lawrence went from pale blonde to bronzed brunette is probably a job more suited for a Photoshop expert than for me to explore here.

But I’m intrigued at the description of the actress, since it’s close to how Stockett crafted Skeeter being “too blond, too tall, too pale, too pretty”

Let’s face it, while Skeeter thought of herself as funny looking, a complete stranger (Mr. Golden, the newspaper editor) and then the handsome senator’s son Stuart Whitworth thought she was pretty. So that settles that.

I’ll just say this and move on, since this post is about The Help EW cover. I wonder what would have happened if the author of The Hunger Games had stood her ground and insisted on having a minority cast in the part, as these roles are so few and far between for either an Asian, Native American or young actress of multiracial ethnicity? Too bad we’ll never know.

However, one thing’s for sure. White actresses can play any role. Minorities are boxed in, and rarely looked at for parts written for a young white actress. There’s definitely something broken in Hollywood, and its not going to get fixed anytime soon.

More about the EW article on The Help:

“Last month the NAACP hosted a special advance screening of The Help…The emotional high point of the evening was when Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose activist husband Medgar was gunned down on his front lawn in Jackson at the age of 37 in 1963, took the stage. After gracefully accepting the crowd’s standing ovation, she gave the movie her most heartfelt blessing. ‘They captured the times,’ she said up on stage, alongside Stockett, director Tate Taylor , etc. “Evers-Williams then went on to urge everyone to soak up the film’s ‘lessons of courage and liberation’…”

Understand that there are no winners here.

When Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel was about to be released in 2009, one thing neither Stockett or her publisher wanted was any criticism or controversy to derail the book’s momentum.

So, just as Skeeter needed Aibileen to help her “win over” the other maids, it seems there were those involved with the book who thought they’d need an African American to actually do the same thing with The Help.

Enter actress/comedian Octavia Spencer, who began to pop up on blogs around the internet speaking on her “good friend” Kathryn Stockett’s behalf. The items in bold from an interview Stockett did in May 2011:

“. . . motivated in part by nostalgia for the maid who had helped raise her in the 1970s. “I felt like if I wanted to hear her again – she died when I was just 16 – the fastest way to do that was to start writing in her voice,” Stockett says. “Honestly, I didn’t think anyone was going to read the story.”

As a result, she wrote with “abandon,” letting her feelings lead her. It was only much later, when she decided to try publishing what had become a full-blown novel, that she started to get “very nervous that I had crossed a line that should never be crossed in America.”

To help cover her tracks over that line, Stockett recruited an actress friend, Octavia Spencer, to participate in her first book tour. “I would read the white parts and she would read the black parts and we had a lot of fun,” Stockett says, adding that Spencer’s free spirit was the inspiration for Minnie, one of her two black heroines. “She got it. She grew up in Alabama and she understood that world probably better than we do.”

Interview with John Barber for Saturday’s Globe and Mail

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/kathryn-stocketts-southern-discomfort/article2012818/singlepage/#articlecontent

 

 

And here’s an example of  Spencer having her “friend” Kathryn Stockett’s back (click the image for a larger view):

 

Octavia Spencer speaks up for The Help

 

Link: http://calitreview.com/2526

But the real prize was yet to come.  

Articles in major online and print publications that gave positive word of mouth. Stockett’s closeness to Demetrie was quoted several times, even more “Kathryn’s my friend” and “Octavia’s my friend” statements were dropped and everybody went home happy.

Stockett must have been really feeling the love, because she loosened up and shared a bit more than perhaps she needed to (items in bold are my doing):

“It’s amazing,” she says, with special compliments to Octavia Spencer, the actress who voices the sections by Minny, a stubborn maid whose mouth gets her in trouble.

“Octavia is feisty,” Stockett says of her friend. “I begged them to give that role to Octavia and … it’s amazing.”

Spencer, an actress from Montgomery, Ala., and now in Los Angeles, says she has read the book three times and listened to it twice.

“I love this book. If I weren’t friends with Kathryn, I would still love this book.”

Read the entire interview here:

http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2009/may/22/voices_past_remembered_new_book83144/

 

 

There’s also a December 2009  audio interview where Stockett states Octavia Spencer was to get the role of Minny in the movie, alluding to “that was the agreement”   

“I think Octavia will be the part of Minny (Stockett laughs) because that was the agreement. It was no pulling hair on that one.”

An interview with Kathryn Stockett, Author of  ‘The Help’  Narrated by Diana Dapito

Link: http://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B002ZD9JDY (no transcript available)

 

And a few more interviews refering to their “Friendship”

“I had an actress friend, uh she was really an acquaintance at the time. Her name is Octavia Spencer and she’s so amazingly talented. She um, you know she… I would watch her at parties and I would watch her mannerisms and her gestures and she’s just hysterical.  And she’s very well educated and extremely intelligent and but you know,  Octavia, she will tell you like it is.

And I started picking up on that and trying to incorporate that in the character Minny. And uh, still not knowing Octavia very well when I approached her I said hey, I wrote a book and you’re one of the main characters. She just rolled her eyes and walked away.”

“Oh Gosh, she was so nice, she went on tour with me. She read the African American parts and I read the white parts. And it was quite a show.”

Audio Interview hosted by Steve Bertrand of Barnes and Noble’s Meet the Writers (no transcript available)

Link: http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

 

 

“The film rights to The Help have been acquired by Stockett’s great friend Tate Taylor, whom she grew up with in Jackson. ‘It’s scary putting a part of your financial and professional future in the hands of a good friend, even if you believe in them, because he’s still on the cusp – he hasn’t had huge success yet, but he’s talented and I know he will.’ Tate introduced her to the actress Octavia Spencer, who was the inspiration for Minny Jackson in the book. (Her heart sank when Stockett gave her the manuscript to read, worried that she might appear as a character like Mammy from Gone With the Wind. ‘And then I read it and I couldn’t stop reading it. It was brilliant.’)”

Read the entire interview here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

 

I want to stress there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this. Except . . .

Well, given the already sensitive nature of The Help, taking a page out of the novel really wasn’t needed. The book already had enough emotional manipulation going on. There was no need to add more in real life.

Because in the beginning, Stockett didn’t really face much criticism.

Obama had just been voted into office, Stockett had a feel good premise, plus her story of a close relationship with the maid Demetrie seemed plausible, and a PR person’s dream. But that was in  early 2009. Fast forward to present day and curiously enough,  Octavia Spencer is trying to distance herself a bit from the whole “Octavia IS Minny” making a point in recent interviews to insert the word “inspired” as in, she was only loosely the “inspiration” for the character.

BAWHAHAHAHAHA … (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

So why the change? Who knows, who cares.

For better or worse, Octavia is stuck with being Minny. There’s just too many other articles out there where she had no problem with it and didn’t offer a correction.

After Spencer stood on stage while Stockett snorted in laughter at her “spoilt cootchie” scene, I could hear her tap dancing loud and clear (the scene I’m referring to is when Minny and Aibileen act as if they’re dumb enough to believe that God gave Aibileen the power to call down a venereal disease on her rival, Cocoa. It’s on Pgs 23-24)

During ABC’s 20/20 magazine promo for the novel Spencer makes a joke about wanting to practice voodoo to get rid of the other likely contenders. She mentioned Mo’Nique and Jennifer Hudson as actresses who were  possibily in the running for the role.

It was during this TV interview that I realized Spencer may have been desperate enough to do whatever was asked of her and then some.

That’s the real travesty of this whole thing. It’s come down to some being convinced that stereotypical roles, which are a return to the only parts Hollywood churned out for black actresses during segregation’s heyday are great parts.

 

Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life

“Misrepresentation in a novel, whether or not it’s fiction, hurts. It hurts more when the writer connects it with something as profound as the civil rights movement. It’s the same sort of argument I hear from young adult readers when the issue of whitewashing book covers is brought up: a publisher releases a book with a white model on the cover when the book is about a black protagonist. When black readers complain, some white readers go, “It’s just a book cover. Stop making this into a race issue.” They say it, because they don’t understand. When you’re white and you’re used to having your race take centre stage in every single TV show, movie, video game – every facet of popular media – it’s difficult, probably near impossible, for you to understand that even the littlest things like fiction characters are big things to black people. Because we don’t have Harry Potters or Edward Cullens (thank God) or any of those popular white characters to represent us. So we have to make do with the little black characters that populate contemporary fiction.”

 

A little known fact is that Stockett takes a turn at voicing  Minny while on her book tour, and you can read more about it and click a link to the video here.

I never liked the character of Minny. I’d stated over a year ago that the maid as written in the novel was simply a loud mouthed mean girl. She wasn’t funny, but crude. Speaking ill of the civil rights movement and attending church simply to talk about other parishoners.

With this “sassy” character who’s also an abused woman (the fact that many readers lost sight of this showed just how the stereotype overshadowed the domestic violence angle). Stockett made a crucial mistake by making Minny so uncouth, that she abuses her own daughters. The character bellows orders at her youngest child Kindra, labeling the five year old as a negative handful who’s too much like her mom for her own good. And Minny’s ascent to Mammy Sainthood is assured when she smacks her eldest teen daughter Sugar for gossiping about Celia Foote.

From the novel:

Then Sugar turned around, laughing with the others. She didn’t see the whap coming at her. Soapsuds flew through the air.

“You shut yo mouth, Sugar.” I yanked her to the corner. “Don’t you never let me hear you talking about the lady who put food in your mouth, clothes on your back? You hear me?”

Sugar, she nodded and I went back to my dishes, but I heard her muttering. “You do it, all the time.”

I whipped around and put my finger in her face. “I got a right to. I earn it every day working for that crazy fool.” (Pg 334)

Spencer has lots to look forward to. People will be clammoring for her to “do Minny” probably for the remainder of her career.

And since Stockett’s her “Good friend” perhaps she’ll get cast in the next book to movie deal because after all, what are friends for if they can’t hook you up when they need a black person to play a stereotype?

Getting back to other issues within and outside of the novel, the publisher was smart to reveal how Stockett’s grandparents practiced segregation even after it had been outlawed. The way it was worded in the back of the book under the section Too Little, Too Late, most people concentrated on Demetrie’s relationship with Stockett, and the heartwarming story recalling the love a now successful southern writer had for her former maid and primary caretaker.

Only Stockett never comes out and says she loved Demetrie.

No where in Too Little, Too Late does Stockett or even her fictional counterpart in the book, Skeeter Phelan state they “love” the women who practically raised them.

The closest Skeeter gets to saying it is when she’s trying to sell the premise of the novel to editor Elaine Stein.

“I’d like to write write this showing the point of view of the help. The colored women down here. . . they raise a white child and then twenty years later the child becomes the employer. It’s that irony, that we love them and they love us, yet. . .we don’t even allow them to use the toilet in the house” (Skeeter, Pg 105)

And she also says “ . . . As much as Constantine loved me, I can only imagine how much she must’ve loved her own child. Skeeter (Pg 358)

 

Here’s how Stockett frames her affection for Demetrie:

“. . . how I loved to talk to Demetrie” (Pg 447, Too Little Too Late)

“. . . you felt loved when you tasted Demetrie’s caramel cake.” (Pg 448  Too Little Too Late)

“. . . I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving. so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.” (Pg 450 Too Little Too Late)

And that’s it. Stockett does a bit more “philosophizing” (a term she has Aibileen saying in the novel)

 

 

But the word “love” is never directed aimed at Demetrie, as in, “I loved Demetrie as if she were a second mother.” 

Stockett used the pages at the back of the book in an attempt to explain herself. Maybe it made her feel better about what she’d done in the novel.

“The Help is fiction, by and large. Still, as I wrote it, I wondered an awful lot what my family would think about it, and what Demetrie would have thought too, even though she was long dead. I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. . .” (Pg 450)

I don’t think Stockett needs to be worried. Her novel hardly reads like the voice of a black person, but of a white author attempting blackface. A few examples:

“Can’t have no proper sandwich on no raw bread. And this afternoon I’ll make one a Minny’s famous caramel cakes. And next week we gone do you a fried catfish. . .” (Minny, Pg 140)

“You saying people think I got the black magic?” Aibileen (Pg 24)

“I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” Minny (Pg 217)

“Cat got on the porch this morning, bout gave me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny.” Minny (Pg 48)

“Say maybe she getting mal-nutritious.” Aibileen to Minny, (Pg 14)

“Let’s see,  I put the green beans in first, then I go on and get the pork chops going cause , mmm-mmm, I like my chops hot out the pan, you know.” (Minny Jackson, Pg 166)

“That ugly white fool” Minny (Pg 292)

And Miss Leefolt come home with her hair all teased up. She got a permanent and she smell like pneumonia (Pg 94 ) – Aibileen

How his foot fell asleep and he say it tickle. I told him that was just his foot snoring. And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years  old. It’s always nice to see the kids grown up fine. (Pg 91) Aibileen

My work shoes so thin, look like they starving to death (Pg 16) Aibileen

“Ugly live up on the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person. Is you one a them peoples?” (Pg 62) Constantine

“Every morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision. You gone have to ask yourself, Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?” (Pg 63) Constantine

We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known. (Pg 5) Aibileen

“I got me a knife!” Minny (Pg 307)

“You is kind, you is smart, you is important” (Mae Mobley reciting what Aibileen has taught her, Pg 443)

“Oh Law” (Aibileen, Pg 443)

For more information on what went wrong in the book, please read this post

 

 

Even though her novel became a runaway bestseller, it’s clear there’s still something eating at Kathryn Stockett. Because in a more recent interview the author admited this:

“I’m still waiting for the jack-in-the-box to pop,” she says, “for somebody to corner me and say everything I say in my own head – that I had no right to do this.”

In fact, some have done that, accusing the author of the very contemporary sin of cultural appropriation. But when it comes, Stockett says, the criticism is sometimes a relief. “I do wish that people talked about the subject of race, especially in the South,” she says. “It’s just a really hard and uncomfortable topic.”

Interview with John Barber for Saturday’s Globe and Mail

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/kathryn-stocketts-southern-discomfort/article2012818/singlepage/#articlecontent

 

 

It’s not an uncomfortable or hard topic for me, especially since minorities have been trying to get people to listen for years.

Back in 2010 I relayed the story of how Fannie Hurst utilized her good friend Zora Neale Hurston to essentially do the same thing Stockett did with Octavia Spencer.

When Imitation of Life was released in 1933, it was both panned and beloved. The book was a bestseller, and the movie of the same name was a hit. At one point Zora even had Langston Hughes convinced to jump on the bandwagon. But after reading enough criticism on the book, Hughes changed his mind, instead producing a stage parody called “Limitations of Life.”

And no matter how Viola Davis tries to spin it, Aibileen is no more a multifaceted character than Delilah was in Imitation of Life, or Queenie from Showboat. Aibileen exhibits some of the same racially conflicted, low self esteem that William Styron heaped upon his fictional take of  Nat Turner in his award winning bestseller The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Cover of the novel "The Confessions Of Nat Turner"

 

Styron’s lyrical but brutal prose earned a Pulitzer and the ire of a group of black authors who published a response titled William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond in 1968Though stunned and hurt by the reaction, Styron did have a major supporter in writer and personal friend James Baldwin.

It was reported that due to the public dissent over the book, a planned movie version of the novel was shelved.

In noting how the black culture is caricatured and at times played for laughs in The Help, I did wonder where a similar outrage and united scholarly response was.

I do believe however, that Viola Davis was able to suggest and perhaps even get some changes made to the screen version of Aibileen. And any alteration will possibly be a change for the better.

Because in the novel, Aibileen is “good” simply because of how loyal, loving, and how wonderful of a Mammy she is to both Mae Mobley and Skeeter.

I didn’t start this blog until June 2010, but here was my reply to Spencer’s claim that Aibileen and Minny were essentially positive characters in the novel. It’s important to keep in mind the book came first and that’s where  issues with the depiction of the maids originated, because its reported that the movie changed a number of things.

 

Excerpts are from my post dated June of 2010 titled  “The Wrong Author for the Right Story”

 http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/the-wrong-author-for-the-right-story/

Excerpt:

” The actress Octavia Spencer is a friend of the author. Ms. Spencer has also won the role of Minny in the movie version of the novel, and was quoted by the California Literary Review Site as saying Stockett “has crafted complex, strong, moral, loyal and need I say it, intelligent women, in Minny and Aibileen.”

As her post goes on, she states: “Usually in literature, black women are relegated to being one dimensional, stereotypical characters: all nurturing, asexual, or completely invisible servants. So, I applaud her for at least giving these women emotional depth”

And finally: “I can state emphatically that Minny was my mother. She was an opinionated, strong, hardworking, sassy, progressive, MAID”

Ms. Spencer also commends Stockett for her “courage” to tell the stories.

In order to offer a counter opinion, let’s take a look at the two characters she references.

First, let’s take a look at Minny Jackson.

When the character is introduced in chapter two, here’s how she’s described by Aibileen on the bus they share going to their respective jobs:

“Minny short and big, got shiny black curls. She setting with her legs splayed, her thick arms crossed. She seventeen years younger than I am. Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. Old lady like me lucky to have her as a friend.”

The picture I get of Minny from the excerpt above, is of a short, large woman with her legs wide open on a public bus.

Back of the Bus - See anybody laughing?

 

While traveling on the bus Minny holds court, cracking jokes about her employer, Miss Walters. Aibileen confirms Minny’s popularity by remarking “Everybody like to listen to Minny.”

The conversation on the bus doesn’t turn into any subject matter such as the growing Civil Rights movement, or even remarks regarding other current events of the time. So whatever deep thoughts Minny might have are masked by her one liners and gripes over her employer.

I also question just how Minny’s bus scene could become as rowdy as Stockett presents it, because the bus driver during that time would have been white, and even the passengers in front would have been white (yes, even though blacks didn’t have to sit in the back, it was still a wise thing to do so).

As the scene progresses, Minny shows a bit more of her bossy personality by proclaiming that  Hilly Holbrook, the main villain in the novel “ought to be extra careful around me.” Her tirade continues, as she advises “She ever say that to me, she gone get a piece of Minny for lunch.”

As it turns out, her statement is eerily prophetic (and extremely gross) later on in the novel.

Shortly after that conversation, Minny loses her job, and the reader finds out this isn’t the first job Minny has lost because of her “sassiness.” Minny can’t seem to keep a job because her sharp tongue gets her into trouble. And so,  a woman with five kids and a sixth on the way is now unemployed.

Minny is a character whose  purpose is twofold. She provides comic relief, and must provide information for Skeeter’s soon to be manuscript on how the black domestics really feel about their employers and their jobs.

As I stated earlier in this post, the characters of Minny and Aibileen, though the names are different, are familiar ones. Because Minny, in providing the “comedy” joins a long list of black performers inserted into movies, whether a drama or comedy, to provide laughs and usually, at their own expense.

Actor Stephin’ Fetchit was a popular black comedian in many a film during the 30s and 40s. Like Minny in The Help, his job was to complain (not too loudly though) and grumble about white folks and what they were asking him to do. In the classic film Gone With The Wind, both Mammy and Prissy expressed their displeasure and observations, which the audience found humorous. When Mammy chastises Scarlet for running after Ashley Wilkes, she hits her with this zinger “He ain’t asked to marry you.”

And  who can ever forget Prissy’s immortal line “I don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies.”

So cue the laugh track, because Minny’s observations about the whites and the blacks she associates with are what many readers find humorous in the book.  When interviewed for the blog Boof’s Bookshelf, Kathryn Stockett was asked about Minny’s humor, to which she replied:

“Oh gosh, I’m not funny at all. I don’t like writing too much trauma. I want to be entertained myself as well as the readers; I can’t stand too much trauma. I think the book needed some humour.”

http://boofsbookshelf.com/2010/06/11/interview-kathryn-stockett-author-of-the-help/

 

 

I can’t remember the last humorous book published on The Holocaust, 9/11, Apartheid or even on slavery (it may have been the parody “Wind Done Gone” which mocked Gone With The Wind from the slaves viewpoint)

Since Stockett admits she’s not funny, I had to wonder why she chose to turn Minny into a very bad comedian. And I also wondered if she even realized she’d resurrected another stereotypical character that plagues African Americans, whether in film, television or print. The character cursed with the smile that will not fade. “

 http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/the-wrong-author-for-the-right-story/

 

 

Next up, a closer look at Aibileen, and looking at both Viola and Octavia’s recent interviews .  Here’s Viola Davis explaining why she took the role:

“Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multifaceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi?” Do you not take the role because you feel like in some ways it’s not a good message to send to Black people? No. The message is the quality of the work. That is the greater message.”

Davis goes on to say “As Black women, we’re always given these seemingly devastating experiences—experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as Black women is take the worst situations and create from that point.”

Uh, okay. If by multifaceted the thought is the character flips easily from grinning Uncle Tom, to nurturing Mammy, to devoted protector of her seventeen white children. When the book starts Aibileen’s “special baby” is two year old Mae Mobley.

Aibileen (Viola Davis) with Mae Mobley in the film The Help

Soon as I walk in her nursery, Mae Mobley smile at me, reach out her fat little arms.

‘You already up, Baby Girl? Why you didn’t holler for me?’

She laugh, dance a little happy jig waiting on me to get her out. I give her a good hug. I reckon she don’t get too many good hugs like this after I go home.

Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib, Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine rolling her eyes like it’s a stray cat stuck in the screen door. See, Miss Leefolt, she dress up nice ever day. Always got her make-up on, got a carport, double-door Frigidaire with the built-in icebox. You see her in the Jitney 14 grocery, you never think she go and leave her baby crying in her crib like that. But the help always know.

Today is a good day though. That girl  just grins.

I say “Aibileen.”

She say, “Aib-ee.”

I say, “Love.”

She say, “Love.”

I say, “Mae Mobley.”

She say “Aib-ee.” And then she laugh and laugh. She so tickled she talking and I got to say, it’s about time. (Aibileen Pg 5)

 

 

Kind hearted Aibileen can see the good in just about everyone, even the villain of the novel and now the movie, Hilly Holbrook:

Heather, Miss Hilly’s girl, she pretty cute. Heather got dark, shiny curls all over her head and some little freckles, and she real talkative. One thing I got to say about Miss Hilly, she love her children. About every five minutes, she kiss Will on the head. Or she ask Heather, is she having fun? Or come here and give Mama a hug. Always telling her she the most beautiful girl in the world. And Heather love her momma too. She look at Miss Hilly like she looking up at the Statue a Liberty. That kind a love always make me want a cry. Even when it going to Miss Hilly. Cause it make me think about Treeloree, how much he love me. I appreciate a child adoring they mama. (Pg 184)

But I had to wonder where the comparable scene of Skeeter perhaps thinking a child on Aibileen’s street was “pretty cute” or even Aibileen mentioning that Minny’s kids were “pretty cute” and that they loved their mother. There weren’t any.

Seems Aibileen in the novel just doesn’t have the same level of affection for Minny’s kids. During one of the only times the docile character’s not cringing, Aibileen thinks this about now seven year old Kindra (Minny’s youngest is five when the novel begins):
Kindra – she seven now – she sass walk her way to the stove,with her bottom sticking out and her nose up in the air. Pans go banging all over the place. (Aibileen, Pg 396)
Just before Aibileen turns judgmental about Kindra, she makes this unkind observation about her best friend and abused wife Minny’s home:
As usual, Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking.  I see the first hint a Minny’s belly under her her dress and I’m grateful she finally showing. Leroy, he don’t hit Minny when she pregnant. And Minny know this so I spec they’s gone be a lot more babies after this one. (Aibileen, Pg 396)
You can read about how Stockett plays favorites with even the littlest members of her novel here

"You is kind, you is smart, you is looking the wrong way kid. . ."

Just like Minny, Stockett uses Aibileen to voice some things about herself and her community that . . .  well, you be the judge:
“We was all surprised Constantine would go and… get herself in a family way. Some folks at church wasn’t so kind about it, especially when the baby come out white. Even though the father was black as me.” Aibileen to Skeeter (Pg 358)

That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. Aibileen’s  battle of wills with a cockroach (Pg 189)

. . . And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years  old. It’s always nice to see the kids grown up fine. (Pg 91)

Yule May easy to recognize from the back cause she got such good hair, smooth, no nap to it. (Pg 208)

Viola Davis saying the line that was never uttered in the book "You are a Godless woman"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Miss Leefolt come home with her hair all teased up. She got a permanent and she smell like pneumonia (Pg 94 ) – Aibileen

“Just pour some pneumonia in that garbage”…I jot it down, amending it to ammonia (Pg 84) – Skeeter correcting what Aibileen has told her 

“Go ahead,” I say. “I ain’t afraid of no philosophy.” (Pg 311, Minny and Aibileen discuss Celia not seeing the “lines” between black and white)

In the novel Aibileen can say “philosophy” “congealed salad” “parliamentary” “conjugation””motorized rotunda” and “domesticized feline” yet can’t stop using “pneumonia” for “ammonia”. Yeah righhhhtttt.

 

All I’ve ever wanted to be was a maid:

“Did you…ever have dreams of being something else?”

“No,” she says. “No ma’m I didn’t.”    Aibileen’s reply to Skeeter (Pg 144)

Aibileen, the mother who lost her son a mere two years ago when the novel begins is never given a scene in the book where she’s allowed to shed tears in grief over Treelore’s death. Stockett unleashes the waterworks selectively. After Medgar Evers murder, when Aibileen is fired and separated from Mae Mobley, and this scene:
That night I lay in bed thinking. I am so happy for Miss Skeeter. She starting her whole life over. Tears run down my temples into my ears, thinking about her walking down them big city avenues I seen on tee-vee with her long hair behind her.  (Pg 437)

Viola as Aibileen showing just what Kathryn Stockett thought it will take to make a black woman break down during segregation. Being separated from Miss Skeeter and Mae Mobley

Yes, an enduring and apparently endearing character some writers insist on recycling for minorities (not just for African Americans) is the stoic, blindly loyal perfect side kick. This is a character who mixes friendship with love, because somehow in a short span of time or through a series of dramatic events (that affect the minority and the white lead), they bond tight as superglue. Usually the minority character is the one revealing how much the white character means to them, so the relationship seems a bit one-sided. In The Help, that character is Aibileen Clark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s Aibileen groveling and cringing when Skeeter of all people raises her voice:

I clench my hands, I close my eyes. “I don’t have anyone I can ask, Aibileen,” I say, my voice rising. I’ve spent the last four hours posing over this very fact. “I mean, who is there? Pascagoula? If I talk to her, Mama will find out. I’m not the one who knows the other maids.”

Aibileen’s eyes drop from mine so fast I want to cry. Damn it, Skeeter. Any barrier that had eroded between us these past few months, I’ve just built back up in a matter of seconds. “I’m sorry,” I say quickly. “I’m sorry I raised my voice.”

“No, no it’s alright. That was my job, to get the others.”

“. . .but how many? how many have you asked?”

Aibileen picks up her notebook, flips through a few pages. Her lips move, counting silently.

“Thirty-one,” Aibileen says.

She swallows hard, nods rapidly to make me understand how much she means it.

“Please, don’t give up on me. Let me stay on the project with you.”

I close my eyes. I need a break from seeing her worried face. How could I have raised my voice to her?

“Aibileen, it’s alright.  We’re . . . together on this.” (Pg 161)

 

 

More posts which explore the docile, “beloved” caricature known as Aibileen:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/mommy-mammy-issue/

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/saint-aibileen/

This post is still under development. . .

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