What separates us about The Help? Apparently more than we thought

Posted on August 7, 2011

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“Wasn’t that the point of the book?, For women to realize, We are just two people. Not much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought”     –  Skeeter Phelan from The Help

 

In the acknowledgement section under Too Little, Too Late, Kathryn Stockett repeats this line because, as she states its “the one line I truly prize.” I understood the meaning of her statement. And if I didn’t know anything about segregation, I’d probably tear up at how lovely the sentiment, how profound and how very wonderful of her to realize this and to articulate it in her book.

However, I also looked at it as an author admiring what she believed was killer prose. A self congratulatory pat. And though the thought the author expressed is nice, several times in the book Stockett does show just how different the black characters are from their employers. And not in a good way.

It’s that extra meaning, not only in the book but in the movie that may cause a division between those who will love this work, and those who won’t.

I’m sort of in the middle. I’ll admit Stockett has writing talent, and I was initially excited about the novel’s premise.

But ultimately, after stopping and then starting back up to read the book, it was disappointing.

But it didn’t have to be so.

Several times I wondered why Stockett took a path with certain characters, and why no one, like her good friend Tate Taylor  (Stockett picked Taylor early on to write the screenplay and then to direct the movie) didn’t speak of his concerns.

I was curious to know why Taylor, and for that matter those who’d come in contact with the book prior to publishing didn’t point out where she’d stumbled.

Surely as a man himself, didn’t Taylor realize Stockett’s depiction of the black males was off?

And if he didn’t catch it, I would have thought Octavia Spencer pulled her good friend Kathryn aside and whispered in her ear that “I know I said for the interview it was ‘brilliant’ but you might catch hell for a number of things and I need to tell you why.”

Only that didn’t happen. Or maybe it did, but it was too late in the publishing process.

At least that’s what I’d like to think, that if Stockett could have caught it in time, it would have been fixed.

In any event, the movie is soon to be released to the general public. Sure, there have been misteps along the way.

But this may come down to those who love the film and haven’t read the book.

And those who hate the film and haven’t read the book.

The tie-breaker may be what’s in the book.

Because the novel will hold the keys to what may be the movie’s critical downfall.

I hate to say this, but its like Milli Vanilli lamented “If we just didn’t get the Grammy”

Milli Vanilli, the successful duo's career was ended by a lip snyc scandal

Without this lip-syncing duo winning a grammy in the early 90s, they probably would have continued to perform off a track using the voices of two uncredited singers without anyone being the wiser. At least for another album or two. But once it was revealed that there were others in the background, then backlash and scorn ended their career.

That won’t happen to those behind The Help movie. Whatever occurred behind the scenes may not be relevant once the glow of the premiere and box office receipts are counted. It’ll be later on, when its time to hand out awards that inconsistencies and the controversy over the novel may be revisited.

Because there’s a number of things lurking in the background which make admiring this work harder than first thought.

Those who love the book and love the movie will be hard pressed to answer when pointed to the changes made from the novel.

But the bigger question will still be, Why the heck was some of that stuff in the book anyway?

Did Aibileen have to exhibit such self-loathing about her own skin color?

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)

“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)

Aibileen and Mae Mobley

Why were the white males who practiced segregation written in the book  as if they played no real part in keeping the wheels of segregation turning? From some early reviews, they behave the same way in the movie. Is this a case of deliberate whitewashing?

“But your father, at the table. He said he thought Ross Barnett was wrong.”

“You know that’s not the way it works. It doesn’t matter what he believes. It’s what Mississippi believes. He’s running for the U. S. Senate this fall and I’m unfortunate enough to know that.” (Stuart explaining to Skeeter why his father has no choice but to play the part of a loyal segregationist Pg 271)

Another example is how Carlton Phelan, Skeeter’s father surprises her with this statement:

My father clears his throat.

“I’ll be honest,” he says slowly. “It makes me sick to hear about that kind of brutality.” Daddy sets his fork down silently. He looks Senator Whitworth in the eye. “I’ve got twenty-five Negroes working my fields and if anyone so much as laid a hand on them, or any of their families. . .”

Daddy’s gaze is steady. Then he drops his eyes. “I’m ashamed, sometimes, Senator. Ashamed of what goes on in Mississippi.”

Mother’s eyes are big, set on Daddy, I am shocked to hear this opinion. Even more shocked that he’d voice it at this table to a politician. At home, newspapers are folded so the pictures face down., television channels are turned when the subject of race comes up. I’m suddenly so proud of my daddy, for many reasons. (Skeeter, Pg 268)

And why were the black males who were paired with the maids demonized in the book, so that the maids all ended up alone by novel’s end?

What’s unsettling about this is, slavery also separated black females from black males. During the Antebellum period females who warmed the beds of their masters or doted on the children of the household, or cooked and cleaned to perfection were praised.

Another part of their “job”  it seems was to admonish their “no-account” males for being lazy and no good. While looked at as comical by some, it was also another way to emasculate the black male. Several writers picked up on this not so funny scenario, such as Edner Ferber having Queenie blasts  her husband Joe, calling him “no account” in the novel Showboat. Fannie Hurst has the maid Delilah speak ill of her “white nigger” deceased husband, who it turns out was a bigamist in the book Imitation of Life, and now Kathryn Stockett repeats this, at least in the novel with Minny’s father, Clyde, and Leroy.

Perhaps back during segregation when all women were considered softer than men, (or maybe it was because African American females were still being exploited sexually) violent distain for black females did not reach the fever pitch it that had for black males.

But this is precisely the ugly connotation running throughout the novel, where the primary maids (Aibileen and Minny) have things to say about black males that sound very close to the segregationist ideology of the times.

Newspaper editor Alex Wilson being attacked

          

Newspaper editor Alex Wilson being attacked by group of bigots

The kick seen 'round the world. Alex Wilson is attacked by mob and the world finally sees what African Americans are subjected to.

            

That these characters, who suffered under the oppressive weight of segregation along with black females, would be singled out by Stockett for derision, is one of the worst failings of the novel.

A lynching in Marion, Indiana 1930. The ultimate price black men paid during segregation

Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got the kids to think aboutMinny Jackson (Pg 311)

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. (Aibileen training her young son to call his father Crisco, Pg 5)

But with my sister’s heart problem and my no-good drunk daddy, it was up to me and Mama. (Minny Pg 38)

You won’t see it in the film. And I’m told that Leroy’s actions are only heard off screen.

But the demeaning and frankly insulting depictions are in the novel. And while Stockett admits in the interview below of giving Hilly a softer side, she did the same thing with her white male characters:

“Sometimes you can see the cracks in the surface with Hilly. That’s why I threw in that cold sore. You can really tell that all the stress is getting to her.”

“It’s fun trying to make characters not too flat, meaning not all good or all bad. But it’s a challenge, too. With Hilly Holbrook, who is considered my villain, the best I could do for her in terms of giving her a good side is show that she really cares for her children and that she’s a great leader.”

Interview with Celia Blue Johnson & Maria Gagliano for Slice Magazine

http://www.slicemagazine.org/an-interview-with-kathryn-stockett.html

The white characters receive a special “twist” or Stockett interrupting the reading flow to let the viewer know that these people aren’t really so bad. Maybe her fictional characters weren’t. But by putting them in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 60s Stockett undermines her own premise.

Because history shows that they were quite cruel. And then some.

No where in the novel, and I suspect in the movie is the Citizen’s Council of Jackson, formerly the White Citizen’s Council of Jackson mentioned.

Click on image for a larger view:

White Citizen's Council Jackson Pamphlet cover

Click on image for a larger view:

The Citizens Council and the Sovereinty Commission

Click on image for a larger view:

Recruiting for the Citizen's Council

 
If Stockett had mistakenly vilified the white male or black female like she’d done to the African American male, then more people would be upset. But there was no way I could read the book and act as if “Well, she wasn’t talking about me. I’m female. She means black men are “no-accounts.” Except my dad was a veteran. And I’ve got brothers. So if you’re gonna demean one, then you’re demeaning us all, especially when it reads more like the author swooped in to play omnipresent narrator and chide black males on what she believes is wrong with them. The book seems to also imply the black maids need their head examined  for picking the wrong men. Since Stockett only mentioned one black male in the two years of promoting the novel, it would seem that Clyde aka Plunk  the real life hubby of Demetrie (maid Stockett has been quoted as saying inspired her novel, also in the back of the novel, in the section Too Little, Too Late) is the real life model for the abusive, drunk, absentee fathers, and “no-account”African American males in the novel.
There’s also the matter of unintentional humor, as noted by the reviewer of an early screening below. “an audience who doesn’t realize that some parts that they find really funny aren’t that funny . . . “

A Review from an early screening of The Help

Then there’s inappropriate humor, which depends moreso on whether the actress in the part is one who’s well liked. As long as moviegoers can divorce themselves from whether the type of ditzy affection shown below really could have happened,  then all is well.

But it turns The Help into a Dramedy, and could also turn off some viewers.

Celia gives Minny a hug, which is supposed to make moviegoers chuckle and go "Awww"

When dealing with such a heavy subject matter, what happens when praise over “how funny” the performance is outweighs being sensitive about the segregated times?

Both Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain will be measured by not only how many people love the character, but also if there’s no objection to playing some things for laughs.

Black and white relationships were a lot more complicated back then, yet the film as well as the book makes it seem easy to pretend Celia was color blind while Minny, at first grumpily reluctant was soon content to mother the highly strung,  infantile bride.

Spencer had the added burden of publicly validating the novel early on, even with its questionable depictions of both Aibileen and Minny, and the black males associated with them. In addition, whether Spencer can overcome the belief that her character is simply a  younger clone of Mammy from Gone With Windremains to be seen.

But cringe worthy lines like this from the film don’t help:

“Fried chicken make you tend to feel better about life” – Minny, from The Helpmovie

What feels really wrong about all this is that real people had their dreams deferred, simply because of the color of their skin and their racial designation. And REAL PEOPLE WERE MURDERED simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or hunted down when the KKK, the violent, relentless enforcers of segregation deemed them dangerous. Which usually meant a trumped up charge of whistling at a white woman. There was also the serious threat of registering blacks to vote.

While Aibileen cries and walks off into the sunset as Mary J Blidge sings a song of hope and sorrow, in 1966 Vernon Dahmer was murdered by the KKK in Mississsippi. And Willie Edwards was forced to jump 50 feet from a bridge in Alabama. The Biography Channel has an excellent hour long segment on the KKK called Crimes of the KKK which details these two murders of innocent African Americans.

And justice again was denied.

For more on the differences made in the male characters, click here

Next up, why is Skeeter a lead instead of a supporting character?
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