All Souled Out: No offense Viola and Octavia, but I’ll still pass on “The Help”

Posted on November 13, 2011

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I love Modern Family.

Tonight Phil just said “I can’t help it, I’m turned on by powerful women. Oprah, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, Serena Williams . . . wait a minute-

The punch line is Phil is happily married to Claire, and all the women he mentioned are black.

I guess I enjoy this kind of humor much better than this kind:

Here we have Skeeter Phelan, that gutsy, “brave” Ole Miss grad surprised and un-nerved because:

Skeeter is surprised, and looks about ready to run like a jack rabbit

 
 
 
She’s just entered a room full of black women, so cue the laugh track, because her reaction is supposed to be hilarious. Only, what exactly is so funny about it? Okay, okay, I get it. Only where’s the nuance police when you need them . . .
 

All the "blacker the better" maids in one room, as the film attempts to duplicate Stockett's words with heavy handed film shots

 

 

Whether the controversy still simmering over The Help will pose a hinderance when its time to hand out awards remains to be seen. A poster on another site commented on seeing an article reporting that Dreamwork’s plans on trotting out Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to talk up the film for voters (I’ll see if I can find a link). If true, this would be ironic if you really think about it. Because like the maids they portray, Davis and Spencer are being enlisted to clean up a mess not of their making.

Ever since Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were quoted by EW saying some critics of The Help didn’t like it because the actresses were playing maids, I could see the real issues with their parts had gotten muddled.

And while I can’t share their enthusiasm for resurrecting two well known tropes of African Americans on film, that being the sweetly docile maid and the grumpy comedic maid, fully considering what they perceive is unfair disapproval of their work in The Help  is important. Just as clearly establishing what the problems are with the maids of The Help.

Because it doesn’t lay with either Davis or Spencer. They didn’t write the characters.

It’s the distorted lens under which minorities, and not just African Americans are still viewed through. For as writer and scholar Micki McElya stated:

“If we are to reckon honestly with the history and continued legacies of slavery in the United States, we must confront the terrible depths of desire for the black mammy and the way it still drags at struggles for real democracy and social justice.”     —-    Micki McElya, author of  Clinging to Mammy; The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America

 

Viola Davis as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny in the film The Help

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“Damn, this is the best role for an African American and I’m going to miss it!” – Quote from actress Viola Davis

Link: http://collider.com/viola-davis-the-help-interview/108173/

 

“I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.” – Quote from Viola Davis

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

Aibileen rolls her eyes, in the "best role for an African American" according to Viola Davis. Note where many of her scenes take place. This one's in the kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spencer:  There are a lot of people who don’t like the idea of us playing maids without knowing anything about the story. Not knowing how proactive these women are in their community and how they are propagating change.”

Davis:  They don’t care. It’s the fact that we are playing maids. It’s the image and the message more so than the execution.”

Did that give you pause before signing on?

Davis: “Yes.”

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

 

 

As working actors Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as well as others cast in The Help chose to take parts in a film they knew full well would be controversial. But they also knew there would be others who’d laud their roles in the film, because the novel was so popular.

In addition, many readers who were perhaps not aware of prior novels with an African American domestic telling their life tale, expressed relief that these unsung workers were finally getting their due.

Lillian Rodgers Parks, seamstress and maid for the white house.

                              

In 1961 Alonzo Fields wrote of his 21 years in the White House

                      

 

 

 

The movie version of The Help is a financial success, though not an overwhelmingly critical one. Because it’s not a good sign when an actor of Davis’ stature has to defend her role, especially when it didn’t need to be so.

Whether or not both Davis and Spencer have taken a look at the actual reasons some, like myself had with the book, which the film is based on is not known. In this post I wish to explore where the criticism primarily stems, and whether the world the characters of Aibileen, Minny and even Constantine reside in was ever as “beautiful”  “authentic”  or “accurate” as many originally claimed.

“If you want to see a historically accurate portrayal of life in the sixties, but go behind the door and see the humanity and the love behind these courageous . . .”  – Director of The Help Tate Taylor

Link: http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2011/aug/08/interview-director-star-the-help-why-see-movie/

 

 

“We just wanted to tell the truth. Tell the real story and get it right. Many times as southerners our stories have been handled, taken into hands that were outside the south that’s not always as we know it to be. So we just really want to tell the truth . . . (pause) the good and the bad.”  – Screenwriter and director of The Help, Tate Taylor

Link: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

 

 

Also, the notion that those who disagree with Davis and Spencer’s assessment “don’t know” the characters both actors portray will be examined.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but within Kathryn Stockett’s novel is not only the basis of acclaim for the roles Davis and Spencer portray on screen, but also why there is some negative reaction.

Aibileen and Mae Mobley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aibileen, as written in the novel was content to lavish love on her eighteen or so little charges, but ironically withheld that same affection from the children in her own community. While the book and the film have scenes with the character showing her compassion and affection towards Mae Mobley, the novel has no scenes of Aibileen either spending time or bestowing her wisdom on her best friend Minny’s children, or the kids in her own community. I didn’t see any film stills that suggest this is different in the movie.

Aibileen’s behavior was a serious red flag, or “Mammy” alert in the novel. Because in the history of film and literature, one of the primary qualities of a Mammy was to put the needs of the white child first and foremost. To which Aibileen and to some extent Minny does with the attention she must give to the childlike bride Celia Foote. Minny does this at the expense of her own children. While she’s at first grumpy with Celia, they eventually form a friendly, abeit comedic bond. Yet as the novel progresses, Minny hollers even more at her children, singling out her eldest girl Sugar, and smacking her for gossipping about Celia. And in Aibileen’s presence, Minny berates her youngest daughter Kindra.

It doesn’t help that Kathryn Stockett has fashioned Kindra into a mini version of Minny, complete with a mouthy, know it all attitude. None of the other children in the book acts this way. So Kindra sticks out, defaulting into the stereotypical, full of attitude black kid.

I don’t see her listed in movie credits, and since the character wasn’t mentioned in reviews, Kindra, or much of her attitude must have been dropped from the screenplay.

Sunflower, the deleted hoof shining centaurette from Disney's 1940 movie Fantasia shows "attitude"

 

 

Yet even with Kindra behaving like a child in crisis, does Stockett have Aibileen impart positive affirmations on the girl in the same fashion the maid’s determined to instill in Mae Mobley? No, she doesn’t.

There’s no inner dialogue where Aibileen, who knows of the violence all Minny’s children witness on an almost daily basis thinks:

I got my prayer book out so I can write some things down. I concentrate on Mae Mobley, try to keep my mind off Miss Hilly. Show me how to teach Baby Girl to be kind, to love herself; to love others, while I got time with her . . . (Aibileen, Pg 192)

Instead, in one of the two scenes they (Aibileen and Kindra) appear in together it’s uber compassionate Aibileen who Stockett uses to further distance the reader from Kindra:

Kindra -she seven now-she sass-walk her way to the stove with her bottom sticking out and her nose in the air (Pg 396)  Saint Aibileen, in one of the few scenes where her halo is on crooked.

Since I’m already on this scene, let me expound further on how movie Aibileen differs from the book Aibileen. Because while Minny verbally threatens Kindra for not making dinner of all things, Aibileen’s itching to get to church (the same place they mainly gossip in), not wanting to be anywhere near Leroy when he wakes up raging:

“We better go , Minny” I say, cause this could go on all night. “We gone be late.”

“. . . Benny, go tell Daddy he better get his fool self out a that bed.”

“Aww, Mama, why I-“

“Go on, be brave. Just don’t stand too close when he come to.”

We make it out the door and down to the street  fore we hear Leroy hollering at Benny for waking him up. I walk faster so she don’t go back and give Leroy what he good for. (Pg 397, where Aibileen shows just how chicken shit she really is. If that had been Mae Mobley she would have run back with all deliberate speed)

 

Here’s an example of Aibileen’s Mammyish pride in one of her now grown charges, and the offensive advice she gave him (items in bold are my doing):

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

 

As expected, this wasn’t included in the film. There were several other instances where Aibileen’s actions and inner dialogue harken back to the portrayal of screen maids of old.

The movie never delves into Aibileen’s love life. Similar to Constantine in the book and the film, Aibileen lives alone.

Tate Taylor solved the problems of the novel showing a bias against African American males by dropping many of them. The only one he retained was the black brute stereotype of Leroy, Minny’s abusive husband. In the film his abuse is shown offscreen and the beatings he gives Minny aren’t as detailed, which is a departure from the novel.

Cicely Tyson as Constantine in film version of The Help, coddling a young Skeeter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Again I must stress, much of what was offensive about the characters in the novel was cut from the movie. BUT NOT ALL.

Unfortunately, because the film was based on the wildly popular novel, it still had to retain some dialogue and scenes from the book.

Based on the sensational-LY FLAWED bestseller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated, Study Finds

“Many states have turned Dr. King’s life into a fable, said Mr. Bond, who now teaches at American University and the University of Virginia. He said his students knew that “there used to be segregation until Martin Luther King came along, that he marched and protested, that he was killed, and that then everything was all right.”

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/education/28civil.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

 

 

“I want to be proactive in bringing about change and enlightening people. I think the first way is to get as many people to see this film as possible, especially youth. They have no idea about this time period, no idea.” quote by Octavia Spencer

Link: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/31/entertainment/la-ca-the-help-excerpts-20110731

I AM A MAN

 

 

I’d have to agree in part with Spencer, as the link to a recent study I’ve posted shows. However, where Spencer and I differ is I don’t think The Help was a movie about civil rights.  The Freedom Movement was simply a plot device, or backdrop in the book as well as the movie, as confirmed by her director in a quote I’ve listed below this paragraph. In addition, the last thing I’d hate for any child to retain is that African Americans and fried chicken means hilarity ensues (Minny, in the film states “Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” as well as a few other stupid lines). Knowing what we were mocked about and why during oppression is of vital importance.

 

 

1950s bigoted advertising, for of all things, blacks and fried chicken

 
 
 
 
 

 

“Civil Rights was just the backdrop. I’m not qualified to make a film about civil rights. . .” – Tate Taylor, director and screenwriter of The Help

Link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/oct/20/the-help-domestic-servants-on-film

 

In the book neither Aibileen or Minny wanted any part of the civil rights movement, with Minny even making disparaging comments. The novel has the two acting indifferent to the rising protests of college students and rights activists occupying their own city, contrary to the movie altering their motives. The novel is complete with inner dialogue where these two characters come across as less than admirable when viewing the activities of those wanting to change things.

Marching for Civil Rights. See all the BLACK MEN?

 

 

Here are the quotes from the book and where changes were made to make the film more palpable for moviegoers.

From the novel:

About a year after Treelore died, I started going to the Community Concerns Meeting at my church. I reckon I started doing it to fill time. Keep the evenings from getting so lonely. Even though Shirely Boon, with her big know-it-all smile, kind a irritate me. Minny don’t like Shirley neither, but she usually come anyway to get out the house. . . lately the meetings is more about civil rights than keeping the streets clean and who gone to work at the clothing exchange. It ain’t aggressive, mostly people just talking things out, praying about it. But after Mr. Evers got shot a week ago, lot a colored folks is frustrated in this town. Especially the younger ones, who ain’t built up a callus to it yet. They done had meetings all week over the killing. I hear folks was angry, yelling, crying. This the first one I come to since the shooting. (Aibileen, Pg 207)

 

In this scene Aibileen reads like she’s a dispassionate observer. She almost shrugs off the heightened emotions that are still raw from the other church members shock and pain, over the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers. She even states “lot a colored folks is frustrated in this town. Especially the younger ones, who ain’t built up a callus to it yet.”

This implies that Aibileen has settled back into a business as usual routine, grieving and then moving on from Evers death.  One would think it would trigger a memory of her own recent loss, that of her son Treelore. Yet reading a bit further, notice how Stockett slips in Aibileen’s current priorities:

. . . I look around to see who’s here, reckoning I better ask some more maids to help us, now that it look like we squeaked by Miss Hilly. Thirty-five maids done said no and I feel like I’m selling something nobody want to buy. Something big and stinky, like Kiki Brown and her lemon smell-good polish. But what really makes me and Kiki the same is, I’m proud a what I’m selling. I can’t help it. We telling stories that need to be told. (Aibileen, Pg 207-208)

 

The stunted grief Aibileen feels after Medgar Evers death, and the untimely demise of her only child is a major issue for me. Especially in light of Skeeter’s incessant mourning and memories of Constantine, which take up more page time than Aibileen’s deceased son Treelore, a young man who never even got dialogue in the novel.

And while Aibileen can force back tears on the third anniversary of Treelore’s death, the waterworks flow three times in the novel. When Medgar Evers is killed, when Skeeter leaves for New York (“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. Part a me wishes I could have a new start too. The cleaning article, that’s new. But I’m not young. My life’s about done.”  Aibileen, Pg 437) and most of all when she’s fired and separated from her “special baby” Mae Mobley. This part the movie kept.

 

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

 

 

 

And here’s Minny’s explanation (items in bold are my doing):

 “I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” Minny, speaking of a person she has a personality conflict with, and who’s also holding a community meeting concerning staging a Woolworth sit-in. (Pg 217)

And I know there are plenty of other “colored” things I could do besides telling my stories or going to Shirley Boon’s meetings-the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate. But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing silver. Minny (Pg 218)

 

I think the less said the better about this not only insulting, but highly suspect reasoning created for Minny. 

Her rant still doesn’t justify disparaging those who wanted to join in with the  freedom protests (in the novel, Minny has a serious personality conflict with Shirley Boon). While not every African American took part in the quest for equality, it’s worth noting that there were non-violent marches that even the young children took part in.

Children protesing in 1963 Birmingham, Alabama are led to jail

 

 

“Freedom has never been free . . . I love my children and I love my wife with all my heart. And I would die, and die gladly, if that would make a better life for them.”  Medgar Evers was shot and killed a few days after making this quote.

In a departure from the novel and to imply that the maids were proactive in instigating some type of “change” Tate Taylor decided to use Medgar Evers death as the catalyst for the maids joining up with Skeeter. The original premise had Yule May stealing a worthless ring from Hilly. Because Hilly’s insistent on prosecuting her former maid, the other maids in Jackson (who somehow are all similar in complexion), pop up saying this line to Skeeter “I’m on help you” (not a typo, that’s how its written in the book, and stated in the film – eye roll)

 

So respectfully, I have to disagree with Viola Davis’ statement:

“I think that people actually emerged behind the uniforms, and I think that’s something that people haven’t recognized. These were our mothers and grandmothers, and these stories are just as emotionally viable as others.”

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-en-viola-davis-20111110,0,2609985.story

 

People were always behind these uniforms, well before Stockett’s novel was released. I’ve even listed a few of their actual accounts on this blog.

I’d also addressed whether the maids in The Help were our “mothers and grandmothers” a few months back with this post

I can’t say Stockett’s maids remind me of anyone I know in my family, though they hail from the south and several worked for a time as domestics. There’s condoned intra-racism as well as the demeaning of the black male, which is prominent in novel The Help. I’m sorry, but throwing the black male under the bus in order to put the Mammy trope on a pedestal doesn’t sit well with me. Especially since African American men and women experienced the oppression of segregation TOGETHER.

Unidentified Maid feeding a child

 

 

But their voices were either dismissed or outright ignored, much like original criticism of Stockett’s book was pooh-poohed by a majority of non-minority reviewers, in particular those who felt the need to crown Stockett’s novel “authentic” without even addressing inaccuracies or the offensive scenes in the book.

“You know early on from page one that she’s not making a statement about race. She’s writing about people with a limited education, limited financial needs . . .I say one doesn’t have to be male or female, white or black, to tell this story.  You just have to be a brilliant storyteller and I applaud Kathryn Stockett whether I knew her or not. I would have actually enjoyed the book.”  –  quote by Octavia Spencer
 
 
 
 
 
Again, I have to disagree with Spencer. Kathryn Stockett makes some very direct hits at the African American culture in her novel, and not in a good way. Spencer’s character of Minny gets her share of them. Here’s an example:
 
 “Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s just not something the colored woman do. We’ve got the kids to think about – Minny Jackson (Pg 311) 

Aibileen gets in on the act with the constant references to her skin color (the infamous roach scene, where she measures her skin color to his “He black, blacker than me”) and with this demeaning “joke” about her race in general that I’d mentioned previously:

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

 

These are direct statements on race. They have no place in the novel, especially since Stockett couldn’t see fit to size up her own culture in a similarly blunt fashion. And hiding behind the excuse that it’s just fiction! does not give an author the liberty to insult. That’s an omnipresent voice talking through the characters, making a sociological assumption that wasn’t borne out of any concrete research or stats from the time period. But what was prevalent during that era were bogus studies and articles skewed in favor of portraying blacks in an inferior light, simply to block integration and equality. African American males were a main recipient of this smear campaign, with the same propaganda spread about them that Stockett erroneously fills her novel with.

Stockett also drops the word “nigger” liberally, but the surprise is how often it comes from the mouths of the black characters. In short, imo these aren’t maids who could instill courage or confidence in anyone, as they grovel and grin for the white characters but regularly demean their own culture, all in the name of bringing “humor” to the book.

I think it’s important to state once again, that nowhere in the novel does Stockett malign the males of her own culture in a derogatory manner.

Stockett doesn’t touch having Skeeter or Hilly or any of the white characters speaking of the men in their lives using  negative terms, or even remarking so candidly on their race. However, the author had no problem playing omni-present narrator in an attempt to rehab males who benefitted and practiced segregation. For Stuart Whitworth, Skeeter’s suitor, Stockett “tells” the reader “He is a good man” even though Stuart’s behaved like a heel for most of the novel. Skeeter “Tells” the reader that her father is an “honest” man. And Stuart “tells” the reader in his dialogue that his father, Senator Stoolie Whitworth is only doing the will of his constiuents, which is to adhere to segregation though the senator is a closet liberal.

When Stuart coldly dumps Skeeter and takes back his ring, there’s no pet name for him like Aibileen has for her philandering husband:

We call his daddy Crisco, cause he’s the greasiest no-ccount you ever known. Aibileen, teaching her then adolescent son Treelore to call his father “Crisco” (Pg 5)

No, Stockett’s creations don’t represent my mom or grandmother. Not with Aibileen’s self-loathing nature regarding her brown skin (relaying to Skeeter about Constantine’s ex-lover “the father was black as me.”)

The overseas marketing for the film plays up the white males, using phases like “southern dreamboat” and “handsome good ol boy”

Click images for a larger view:

That "Southern Gentleman" and "Dreamboat" Johnny Foote

 
 
 
 
 

"A Handsome Good Ole Boy" You've got to be kidding

 
 
 

There’s also Minny’s obsession with food that’s more offensive than funny. While Aibileen’s inferiority complex was cut from the film, Tate Taylor used Minny’s love of fried chicken to further stereotype the character. I’d like to think he wasn’t aware of the painful history African Americans had with ads mocking our supposed “love” of fried chicken.

It's Chicken Time! The stereotype of blacks loving chicken is resurrected in The Help

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After seeing this poster and the blurb for his award winning short film, I have a feeling  he already knew:

Tate Taylor's Chicken Party, starring Octavia Spencer and Alison Janney

 

 

“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 multi-faceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not  take the role because you feel in some ways it’s not a good message to send to Black people?”  – Viola Davis, in a quote from Essence Magazine

 

“This White author wrote from the perspective of Black maids and I think she got it right.”  – quote by Octavia Spencer from a Jet Magazine interview

http://www.myjet247.com/Entertainment/Content.aspx?topic=Actresses_address_controversy_over_The_Help_

 

 

What I have to remind myself of,  is that my life experience is different from both these actors even though we share a culture.

And I must emphasize that I don’t condemn either of them for taking the parts. I just think they deserved better.

 

From the novel:

“You gone accuse me of a philosophizing.”

“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) philandering

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

 

 When Skeeter is mocked about her height, Constantine tries to comfort her with fuzzy math:

“How tall is you?” Constantine responds.

“Five-eleven.” Skeeter bemoans. “I’m already taller than the boys’ basketball coach.”

“Well, I’m five-thirteen, so quit feeling sorry for yourself.” (Pg 63) Skeeter and Constantine

 

 “I was in attic, looking down at the farm,” I tell her. “I could see the tops of the trees.”

“You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head.” (Pg 63) – Constantine’s reply to Skeeter

 

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)

 

 

None of the maids have goals or dreams of being anything other than a domestic, that is until Skeeter comes along:

“Did you know when you were a girl, growing up, that one day you’d be a maid?”

“Yes ma’am. Yes, I did.”

I smile, wait for her to elucidate. There is nothing.

“And you that…because…?”

“My mama was a maid. My granmama was a house slave.”

“A house slave. Uh huh,” I say, but she only nods. Her hands stay folded in her lap.

She’s watchin the words I’m writing on the page.

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

“No” she says. “No ma’am, I didn’t.” It’s so quiet, I can hear both of us breathing.  Skeeter interviewing Aibileen in the novel

 

So are Stockett’s characters simply the same old Mammyfied domestic roles, ressurected for a new generation?

One of the reasons I started this blog was to lend a dissenting voice amid the chorus of accolades for a book I saw riddled with errors and  negative inuendo about the black culture.

In truth I’ve commented and argued on other sites and also started a thread on Amazon.com. But all things considered, I think I’ve done pretty well containing? Only going off slightly on? Limiting?  my frustration over the unsavory scenes and dialogue/depictions in the book.

The mass celebration over Stockett’s novel was premature. It wasn’t simply a rush, but a stampede without analysis. And now that the movie has made money (which I stated before the film was released that it probably would) much like The Birth of a Nation was both heralded and a hit at the box office (its still is revered as an FX “classic” despite the overt scenes promoting bigotry), over time I believe Stockett’s book and film will get more critique.

Birth of a Nation, where a black legislator is eating a piece of fried chicken

 

 

Hopefully, those who at first proclaimed the novel “pitch perfect” will take the time to re-examine whether that still holds true.  

 

It’s important to note that the maids are characters  the author admitted were inspired by one woman originally. Stockett’s childhood maid Demetrie McLorn. Read what the author stated in one of her earliest interviews:

 

Why did you decide to write The Help?

‘I started writing it the day after Sept. 11. I was living in New York City. We didn’t have any phone service and we didn’t have any mail. Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick — I couldn’t even call my family and tell them I was fine.

So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up. She later became the character of Aibileen [in The Help]. I sent the story to my mother and she was sort of like, “Hmm, that’s good.” As I wrote, I found that Aibileen had some things to say that really weren’t in her character. She was older, soft-spoken, and she started showing some attitude. That’s [how another character] Minny came to be. After a while longer, I decided to make it a book. ‘ “

Link: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html

 

But as time went on and more information was revealed regarding the real life inspirations for these women, it looked as if Stockett cherry picked the qualities that ironically, fit uncomfortably close to stereotypical screen maids of old. 

Read what Abilene Cooper had to say in this UK interview (items in bold are my doing):

 ‘‘I met Kathryn on two occasions. The first time she came to stay the night. She said, “I’m Rob’s baby sister,’’ and I said, “I’m Abilene.” ‘The second time she was married and she came with her husband and daughter. I never told her about myself. She was quiet, standoffish, but she’d watch me. I’d be dishwashing or it would be playtime with the children and she’d be just staring at me.’ “

Ablene Cooper's photo from the UK Daily Mail. This is the "real deal" Abilene

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2033369/Her-family-hired-maid-12-years-stole-life-Disney-movie.html#ixzz1alqbzhho

 

Now look what Stockett admits saying about Octavia Spencer. The early interviews are a bit different than what Stockett and Spencer have been stating of late: 

“Minny was the easiest to write because she’s based on my friend Octavia. I didn’t know Octavia very well at the time I was writing, but I’d watched her mannerisms and listened to her stories at parties. She’s an actress in Los Angeles, and you can just imagine the look on her face when some skinny white girl came up and said to her, “I’ve written a book and you’re one of the main characters.” She kind of chuckled and said, ‘Well, good for you.’ “ 

http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/help.html

 

 

Since the author graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, I’d be surprised if Stockett didn’t already know about these prior domestic portrayals I’m about to list: 

Here are my guesses for a big part of the  “inspiration” of Stockett’s Mammyish trio:

Aibileen: Louise Beavers

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay in Imitation of Life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, Louise Beavers sweetness in the film shines through her groveling dialogue. Even when she has to laugh at Jessie (Claudette Corbett’s daughter’s name in the origial screen version) mistaking her for a “horsie.”

Scene from Imitation of Life

 
 
 

Imitation of Life

 
 
 
 
Beavers so completely captured the unassuming role of dedicated, saintly Delilah, the ever so eager to please maid, its been said that if the Academy Awards had a best supporting actress category in 1935,  Beavers and not Hattie McDaniel would have  been the first African American to win an Oscar.
 
 
 

Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life, touted as "the greatest screen role ever played by a colored actress"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minny: Hattie McDaniel

Minny Jackson may be loosely based on Octavia Spencer, but she’s also a ringer for Hattie McDaniel’s cantankerous portrayal of Mammy in Gone With The Wind. The love-hate relationship Mammy had with Scarlett was the source of humor for a melodrama that contained action, romance, a look at The Civil War and southern “customs” as well as a peek at race relations.

Hattie McDaniel with Olivia De Havilland and Vivian Lee. Like The Help, the maids had to be made up older and heavier than their co-stars.

The Queen of Sass, Mammy from Gone with the Wind

 

The relationship between Celia Foote and Minny plays upon this concept of a comedy team of black and white. In GWTW Mammy was the voice of reason with a few comedic zingers thrown in. In The Help, Minny does the same with Celia, in yet another relationship that strains credibility. Though its entertaining escapism, having the white trash Celia behave as if she’s so bubbleheaded that she’s completely colorblind (even though her husband is an avid collector of Confederate memorablia) and that she’s wonderfully unaware of how most whites are expected to treat African Americans in Jackson, Mississippi makes the movie more of a dramedy.

Salt and Pepper's here. The comedic duo of Celia and Minny, making segregation fun for all

 
 
 
 

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

 

 

What’s also important is that historically, when films like The Help are released, the studio PR machine works overtime to convince African Americans that the movie does us justice. In far too many instances, that’s not the case. The backlash that Davis and Spencer are feeling is not that people are unaware, but completely the opposite. Many are very much aware, and ready to challenge with more than just conjecture. I’d have to argue that many dissenters of the movie come equipped with examples from prior film history and  literature. You be the judge.

The problem with the maids of The Help, which also encompasses many of the maids played on screen by black actresses, is Kinder, Küche, Kirche.

 

Children. Kitchen. Church.

“This is one of the first times that I’ve seen domestics or people of lower means from that era have a voice and the story has been told from their perspective,” Spencer said. “I’ve never read something where we weren’t just plot points and our characters had lives outside of the kitchen.”  – Actress Octavia Spencer

 

CHILDREN. kitchen. church

Annie from Imitation of Life, 1959 version

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Help simply continues in print and film, to box in African Americans when they’re relegated to domestic roles. We get no backstory, no love interest,  just side players who “help” move the story along. Because the real tale in book and the movie is the white protag’s coming of age or reaching their HEA (happily ever after).

 

Viola Davis as Aibileen in film version of The Help and young actress as Mae Mobley

 

There’s a reason why most of the African American maids in The Help are older. Stockett touched on a money winner, tapping into the nostalgia many people, both southern and northern (black maids didn’t just watch kids in the south) had with their own black “help.”

Many have sweet stories of their bond with these women, yet can’t really state much about them outside of the job they performed.

Like Kathryn Stockett, they relay tales of how precious their relationship was with the women who were like a second mother. However, what must be addressed is the lack of choice African Americans had in the matter. It was their job to make certain the children liked them, and in some cases real attachments formed. And I have no problem agreeing with that. But it’s the rare individual who’d be mean to a child. And it’s even rarer still that an African American would risk their livelihood by not throwing themselves into the role of caretaker.

After all, that white child still had a measure of authority because of their race.

But a child’s understanding of  how adults treated their “beloved” black maid, the ones now recalled as “one of the family” is questionable. What’s usually left out of these fond memories is who had the power and control. And how it wasn’t the white employers or their children who had to remember not to step out of line. But the black help.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While Stockett’s premise was a good one, even she stretched the truth a bit. Here’s what the author stated about the “love” felt by both parties (this section is taken from another post I’d done earlier, titled “They love us, we love them, sez who?

When asked how those in her hometown felt about her novel, Stockett said this:

“I think they were surprised that I was able, hopefully able to portray the love we felt for these woman and that you know, I assume that they felt for us . . .” (11:29 into the interview)

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/speakingvolumes/2009/05/26/interview-with-kathryn-stockett

 

 

 

And there’s also this interview:

D.N.: When you interviewed people for the book, was there anything that stood out?

K.S.: What stood out was the emotion that white people had about the connection to their black maids. When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for.

That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job.

Link: http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2011/feb/11/q-help-author-work-book-no-2/

 

 

So how did Kathryn Stockett go from making an assumption about what African American domestics felt, to stretching her findings to outright affirmation? While the author revealed her grandparents maid Demetrie McLorn professed love for Stockett and her siblings, how did the author turn a personal experience into having Skeeter confirm  most, if not all African Americans felt a smiliar bond as their employers?

From the novel:

“I’d like to 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. And . . .everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. Margaret Mitchell covered that. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it.” – (Skeeter, Pg 105-106)

Stockett’s research appears incomplete on whether she even asked a number of former and present African American maids how they felt:

“It’s a tricky question to ask. It is hard to approach someone and say, ‘Excuse me, but what was it like to work for a white family in the South during the 1960s?’ I guess I felt a lot like Skeeter did in The Help.”

Link: http://www.kathrynstockett.com/book/qa/

 

“I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand.” – Quote by Kathryn Stockett

Read the entire interview here:

http://clatl.com/gyrobase/kathryn-stockett-life-in-the-belle-jar/Content?oid=3795185&showFullText=true

 

 

Yet the author continued to stick with the antebellum influenced, often repeated belief that our domestics love us, oh yes they do because we’re so close and good to them.

Maybe it’s because while the book  and film are titled The Help, and it’s not really about them.

While Aibileen and Minny snipe about their situations in the book and in the film, its not until the character of Skeeter enters, playing a grown up version of plucky Shirley Temple that the maids decide to do something.

And yes, I’ve read the interviews where Viola Davis drops hints about her struggle to get changes made in the script. But ultimately, the image of Aibileen still defaults to the caricature in the novel, the woman many readers swear is a spot on depiction of a southern maid.

Because as long as you have a black woman on screen who’s grinning and overweight,  and knows her way around the kitchen, and oh, she’s speaking in a southern dialect, then there’s your bona-fide black person.

This is a familiar, beloved image.

Mammy Monument in South Carolina

Like screen maids of old and as mentioned previously, Aibileen’s alone. But unless a moviegoer has read the novel, you don’t know why she’s alone. Even if you did read the book, it’s perhaps better left unsaid as to why she’s no longer with her husband, which is even more insulting and stereotypical.

Both Stockett and screenwriter Tate Taylor kill off Aibileen’s only son, thereby squashing any dramatic scene where Treelore could have revealed on how her time spent giving love to the eighteen or so kids she’s raised affected him.

And so Aibileen defaults into a Mammy both in the book and the film, separated from the black male and seemingly content to live her life out in solitude. All except for now devoting her pent up love to Mae Mobley.

 

Except, what makes Mae Mobley so special? And why doesn’t Aibileen then spread her love to the children of her best friend, or kids in her community?

Like past portrayals of African American women as domestics, many filmgoers have been conditioned not to care about a backstory for this character. They simply exist. From a recent interview with Viola Davis:

“Davis arrived on the set of “The Help” still feeling icy. Taylor remembers being in the middle of a story meeting with actress Octavia Spencer when Davis arrived at the front door. “There’s Viola, screeching to a halt in her rental car,” recalls Taylor. ” ‘We’ve got to talk, Tate,’ she said. ‘I’ve got some ideas.”

The two spent hours honing the character of Aibileen, with Davis providing copious pages of notes and Taylor willing to take her ideas. “She didn’t want to look like a mammy,” says Taylor. “She wanted her character to be efficient in what she said. And I agreed. When we were rehearsing, I was slashing whole paragraphs. She thought that was cool.”

AND

“We weren’t just shucking-and-jiving, Ebonics-speaking mammies,” says Davis. “I think that people actually emerged behind the uniforms, and I think that’s something that people haven’t recognized. These were our mothers and grandmothers, and these stories are just as emotionally viable as others.”

Link: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-en-viola-davis-20111110,0,2609985.story

 

  

Well, she’s entitled to her opinion.

Here’s mine: See these two pics from the film? Where Aibileen and Minny are doing a female version of Amos ‘n Andy?

There’s your “shucking-and jiving”

Aibileen and Minny having a ball in the kitchen, as the whitewashing of segregation via films returns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aibileen and Minny, those bold feminists try to watch white people on the downlow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s the ebonics portion: 

“You is kind, you is smart, you is im-po-tent” – Aibileen’s self esteem building affirmations for Mae Mobley, in the book and in the film

“Minny don’t burn no fried chicken” and “Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” – Minny’s dialogue in the film

 

And here’s both the ebonics as well as Minny and Aibileen “shucking-and jiving”  in just one example from the novel:

“You gone accuse me of a philosophizing.”

“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)

 

 

children. KITCHEN. church

Delilah from Imitation of Life, played by Louise Beavers grinning in the kitchen

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In the movie, Minny serves up jokes as well as food, where else but in the kitchen?

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Louise Beavers in nurturing mode

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Cicely Tyson in full nurturing mode

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

children. kitchen. CHURCH

 

 

Lets get some shots of those black people singing in church, a routine example of black "Voice"

 

It’s important to remember that the script was hampered by how much it could change, since the novel was so successful using these stereotypes. So while a bit of tinkering was done, not much was cut to make Aibileen vastly different from the novel.

Thankfully, there’s no self loathing narration like in the novel, where Aibileen bemoans her skin color or reveals she’s got some serious intra-racism going on.

It’s the lead white protag’s love life that plays front and center for a number of reasons. Skeeter’s younger. And most times it’s the younger lead who’s gifted with a love interest. The Skeeter’s in film are also made up (or usually cast) to be attractive. Curling Emma Stone’s hair or be-wigging her, and throwing on a pair of glasses does not make her the Skeeter in the book. In the novel, Skeeter describes herself as downright ugly. However, how Skeeter sees herself and how men view her are two difference things.

Emma Stone made up to look "plain"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Golden, the newspaper editor who hires her to write the housekeeping column proclaims her pretty on their first meeting in the novel. And Stuart Whitworth, who’s another “first” for Skeeter, since at twenty-three she’s never had a boyfriend, also tells her that she’s pretty. It makes more sense with their compliments directed at Emma Stone, however throughout the novel Skeeter’s lack of grace and complex about her looks at least made her a bit more interesting.

And biggest reason to focus on the lead’s story is that Skeeter’s white. Most times its the minority side kick (s) who get shafted, if they’re even in the picture.

While there have been movies which explore love for those over 40, again, the leads are usually white. Jack Nicholson has been the lead in a number of them. Terms of Endearment had Shirley McClain and Jack, Something’s Gotta Give had Diane Keaton and Jack. A while back Clint Eastwood and Merle Streep starred in The Bridges of Madison County, a drama based on a popular romance novel for the over 40.

 Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I get Married” series at least shows mature couples on screen and the films delve into the personal lives of the black protags. Perry’s creations make money, though his work is also mired in controversy. Still, he should be credited with being a successful independent producer who’s at least found an audience.

In addition, his triumph in Hollywood can serve as an inspiration that there’s more than one way to become a producer/screenwriter.

 

“All of the criticism we’ve been facing is based on the fact that I’m not an African-American director and that Kathryn is not an African-American writer . . .” – Quote by the director and screenwriter of The Help, Tate Taylor

Link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/oct/20/the-help-domestic-servants-on-film

 

 

It’s the rare African American who can trace their family lineage and not have at least one member who used to be employed as a domestic. So the complaint that some are  using Taylor or Stockett’s race as a primary issue would be at odds with the core premise for equality. That’s not to say a few people around the internet haven’t mentioned both Stockett and Taylor’s race being a primary concern.

I can only speak for myself  by saying, when I picked up my copy of The Help, I knew Stockett was white. And I knew she was from the south.

I didn’t know she’d been raised by grandparents who insisted their maid adhere to outdated customs and Jim Crow laws well into the 70s and 80s, until I looked in the back of my copy. For as the author states in the back of her novel (under the section Too Little, Too Late):

 

But my older brother and sister and I weren’t allowed to bother Demetrie during her own lunch break. Grandmother would say, Leave her alone now, let her eat, this is her time,” and I would stand in the doorway, itching to get back to her,. Grandmother  wanted Demetrie to rest so she could finish her work, not to mention, white people didn’t sit at the table  while a colored person was eating. (Pg 448)

And

That was a normal part of life, the rules between blacks and whites. As a little girl, seeing black people in the colored part of town, even if they were dressed up or doing fine, I remember pitying them. I am so embarressed to admit it now. I didn’t pity Demetrie, though. There were several years when I thought she was immensely lucky to have us. A secure job in a nice house, cleaning up after white Christian people. But also because Demetrie had no babies of her own, and we felt like we were filling a void in her life. If anyone asked her how many children she had, she woudl hold up her fingers and say three. She meant us: my sister, Susan, my brother, Rob, and me.  (Pg 448)

 

While Stockett’s been candid, I think it was more about not letting this information come out AFTER the novel was released. However, what the author may not have realized is that within her writing, some readers were able to pick up where the author’s upbringing rudely intruded on enjoyment of the novel.

See, it’s one thing to write a bigoted character. It’s another to play omni-present narrator and insert  what could be perceived as your own bias into the text. In this case I believe it was innocently done by the author. I’m pretty sure Stockett believed many of her scenes focusing on the black maids were complimentary. Just like when she describes her “friendship” with Octavia Spencer, qualifying it by reminding people that Spencer’s not only funny, but “intelligent.”

And that’s why, in many sections I felt as if I weren’t reading about a character, but the author’s own assessment on either how African Americans who were  “good” blacks were supposed to behave, or a scathing critique of what’s wrong with the black male here and now.

Add to the sloppy research and editing that left in the Medgar Evers error in the book (Skeeter claims Evers was “bludgeoned” on Pg 277, when he was shot. And in 2009, Stockett gave three known audio interviews where she earnestly states Evers was bludgeoned. The author even embellishes her statement in one of the interviews to claim Evers children witnessed it, thus inviting several troubling questions whether Stockett even did her own research on Evers death, and if she were the originator of the section on Evers getting shot in the book.

Medgar Evers error on Pg 277 of the hard cover edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Click image for larger view:

Error on Evers in the Paperback version of The Help

 

 

 

By not keeping her omni-present narrator in check, the author wound up insulting the very community she claimed to be paying homage to.

Thus Aibileen is only “good” because she cowers, grovels, grins and fawns over the white characters like Skeeter, but most of all her “special baby” Mae Mobley. Minny defaults into a modern version of Mammy from Gone With The Wind. Her love for food, especially chicken is played for laughs and her stereotypical lines are expanded to reportedly include “I love me some fried chicken.”

The “toilet” humor in the book and film reach epic purportions when her “poop pie” is ingested by the book and movie’s resident Cruella DeVille, Hilly Holbrook.

Pristine toilets among the pretty green grass, not a blade out of place

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHEN BLACK ACTORS EMBRACE STEREOTYPES

I’m still working on this section, but you’re welcome to read what I have so far. I may move much of what’s below to its own separate post:

While the movie limits the number of character tropes the book was full of (Leroy is the “Black brute”, Lulabelle, Constantine’s daughter was originally light enough to pass for white, which is the “Tragic mulatto.” In the film she’s renamed Rachel and brown in complexion. Aibileen is the docile, loyal black character trope, Minny is the “sassy” maid enlisted to provide humor)

Aibileen’s low self esteem and Uncle Tomish inner thoughts will forever dog this character. In Stockett’s zeal to “inhabit” a black maid, she wrongly assumed the way blacks dealt with oppression was to either lash out at their own community (Minny, in her tired and oh so corny jokes about members of her church and her own kids) or to turn their contempt inward, which is what Aibileen does.

Here’s a Riceland Rice ad from the 60s. Take a look at the logo of a chinese character. This is a stereotype, and thankfully no longer used by the rice company:

Riceland Rice ad from Ebony Magazine, circa 1960. Chinese icon is a stereotype

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also note that the caricature says “Velly” for the word “very.” This is similar to how many of the maids speak in The Help, with Aibileen using the word “Law” for “Lord.”

Now take a look at one of the most long running and infamous iconic stereotypes of African Americans in the United States. Aunt Jemima and how this ad represents her speaking voice:

Ladies and Aunt Jemima. Note how she "speaks"

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The Mammy Two shoes caricature from Tom and Jerry cartoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cartoon shorts of Tom and Jerry immortalized this sassy, loud voiced maid named Mammy Two Shoes. Though her face was rarely shown, what’s apparent is that she too defaults into the stereotype of a black female. Large bodied, dark in complexion and with a thick dialect.

One thing all these characters had in common, whether in a comedy or a drama, is that they provided humor. It mattered not if they were sweetly humorous or overbearing, their contributions were however colorful they could be in a small role. Another issue is how beauty truly was in the eye of the beholder. And that subjective opinion is still an issue today, and on full display in The Help:

 

 

Blogger’s ‘Ugly’ Conclusions Anger Some In The Black Community

by David Folkenflik

“It is very interesting to note that, even though black women are objectively less physically attractive than other women, black women (and men) subjectively consider themselves to be far more physically attractive than others”

Link: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/05/17/136399684/bloggers-ugly-conclusions-anger-some-in-the-black-community

 

 

This was an “opinion” by a blogger that somehow wound up on a popular site as a pseudo op-ed. The NPR article is a must read, and has this outlandish quote from the blog post, which was quickly taken down by the other site:

” . . . He speculated that the presence of testosterone, which he said was on average more present among Africans, might explain what he said was “the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women.”

A number of prominent African-American commentators took offense at the blog article. But as a commenter pointed out “His conclusions don’t simply “anger some in the Black community.” His conclusions anger many in communities throughout the world of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

BRAVO to that rebuttal comment.

I’ve mentioned several times on my site about Stockett viewing her black characters through a narrow lens. The film appears to share the same fault, with the casting of the black maids in a sort of “one shade fits all” instead of noting the diversity of complexions in the African American community. Even the maid Stockett steadfastly says inspired her isn’t dark complexioned.

Photo of Demetrie, Stockett's grandparents maid. Mrs. McLorn is holding a white child, perhaps Stockett herself or one of Kathryn Stockett's siblings

 

So the film, just like the book implies that only African Americans who were of a darker hue were maids. It doesn’t help that most are made up to be heavy-set, matronly and thick of dialect.

No "get the look" maid outfits were on sale by HSN. Thank God.

 

 

Which is a well known Mammy stereotype.

If one is aware of the history of blacks in American film, then Stockett’s creations are familiar. If not, then they may appear to be new or original creations. But the fact is, there’s a history behind these characters, which is important. I’m trying to make a point here, but I may have to come back later on and refine it for clarity.

I know what Octavia Spencer’s stake in playing Minny on screen, as author Kathryn Stockett based the character of Minny Jackson on her and stated there was an “agreement” that Spencer play Minny on film. You can read about it in the post titled Trivial Pursuits of The Help.

I’m still at a loss as to what Viola Davis is doing mixed up in all this. However, from reading more of her interviews it becomes clear that Davis believes this part to be “the biggest of her career.”

I liken her playing Aibileen to Colin Powell being given suspect information to present to the UN. His credibility was shot after that, and he’s no longer talked about as a potential presidential candidate.

Sure, Viola’s credibility took a blow from some of the comments I’ve read around the web. But she’s so well respected, I don’t think this will effect her popularity overall. But the quote I’ve pasted below sums up part of my problem with her denial about what’s in the book, as it’s a big part of the character she plays. But again, I understand that while she may view herself as a non-traditional beauty, no matter what I or others may say (she’s always been gorgeous to me, make-up or no), its how she feels that’s important (items in bold in print):

 

“If you didn’t object to the dialect, were there aspects of the book that did bother you?

Davis: The one thing I don’t embrace in any book about black women is I don’t embrace how the looks are described. I always erase that. I don’t care if it’s the greatest writer in the world. I know these black women. The first woman of beauty in my life was my Aunt Joyce, and she was over 300 pounds, and we thought she was Halle Berry to us.

Every time she came to visit, she would have these earrings, and these clothes and the beauty of her skin. We would all sit around her touching her hands and her face and her skin and she was beautiful. I didn’t see the bigness. I just have a different idea of how we look, the hues of our skin, how we exude sensuality and sexuality and how our hair looks. So I always just interpret that for myself. It’s like Chris Walken cuts out all the exclamation points, and the periods. I cut out all the descriptions.”

Link: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/31/entertainment/la-ca-the-help-excerpts-20110731

 

 

“Crying like a dog,” Davis listened as Tyson, who costars in “The Help,” told her it was OK to embrace her success. Says Davis, “Cicely told me, ‘I know the road.’ And what she meant by that was she is a dark-skinned black actress. She has the full lips, the dark skin, that look that doesn’t meet any conventional standards of beauty…. She understands the obstacles that were placed in front of me, and she knows that I was able to achieve what I achieved only through hard work. A lot of times people have to give you permission to enjoy your life.”

Link: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-en-viola-davis-20111110,0,2609985.story

 

 

Well, they both still accepted parts, even though Stockett has the African American characters described like this, which took me right out of the story and imo were uncalled for:

 

Sometimes two girls from next door would come over to play with me, named Mary Nell and Mary Roan. They were so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary. (this coming from the liberal minded Ole Miss grad Skeeter, Pg 62)

There’s no appreciation for the beauty of the African American culture, while reading The Help. Kathryn Stockett is Skeeter, so let’s not kid ourselves. Stockett fills the novel with individuals she either knows or has observed, according to her own admission. Here she describes Constantine, putting me in mind of a calico cat:

What you first notice about Constantine, besides her tallness, were her eyes. They were light brown, strikingly honey-colored against her dark skin. I’ve never seen light brown eyes on a colored person. In fact, the shades of brown on Constantine were endless. Her elbows were absolutely black, with a dry white dust on them in the winter. The skin on her arms and neck and face was a dark ebony. The palms of her hands were orangey-tan and that me me wonder if the soles of her feet were too, but I never saw her barefooted. (Skeeter, Pg 65)

 

Here’s Stockett’s/Skeeter’s observations of Minny (based on actress Octavia Spencer, per Stockett’s earlier admissions):

She is fat and short and strong. Her skin is blacker than Aibileen’s by ten shades, and shiny and taut, like a pair of new patent shoes. (Skeeter, Pg 164)

Pascagoula is described as being no more than five feet tall, and, wait for it  . . . black as night. Later on in the novel Stockett has Skeeter viewing other maids “black as asphalt.”

When the maids decide to help Skeeter, Stockett makes the claim that the maids had to be “blacker the better, or they won’t get hired.”  I guess the casting director chose to believe Stockett’s premise that one color fits all for African Americans, giving birth to this scene in the movie, in an attempt to slyly show that yesall black people do look the same:

All the "blacker the better" maids in one room, as the film attempts to duplicate Stockett's words with heavy handed film shots

 

 

 

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)

Here’s Aibileen practically salivating as she talks about Yule May, a character who’s makes up one third of the closer to white trio featuring Yule May and Gretchen:

Yule May easy to recognize from the back cause she got such good hair, smooth, no nap to it. I hear she educated, went through most a college . . .

 

Stockett uses Aibileen to note how “pretty” or cute white characters are. There are no such equal observations on the black characters, though Skeeter notes Yule May has a better figure than Hilly. So being slim appears to be an asset, as Yule May is also described as tall and trim in her uniform.  Hilly is described as coming undone, and there are several scenes noting the weight she puts on. Yet readers are supposed to believe the maids are in a whole ‘nother category, since most of them are described as overweight.

“How you like your teacher” I ask her.

“She’s pretty,” she say.

“Good,” I say. “You pretty too.” (Aibileen speaking to Mae Mobley, Pg 392)

For more on the lack of beauty and appreciation for African Americans in The Help, see this post:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/absence-of-beauty/

 

 

Every now and then Stockett shows the reader another side of Aibileen. There’s her denial of how Minny treats her children, especially the youngest one, Kindra, and  here’s Aibileen making an uncalled for a highly inappropriate quip about her “best friend”:

“Minny, do you and Leroy ever talk about civil rights?” Miss Skeeter ask. “When he comes home from work?”

Minny got that big bruise on her arm cause that’s what Leroy do when he come home from work. He push her around. (Aibileen, Pg 183)

Aibileen also gives this unflattering observation about Minny’s household:

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 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)

 

Here’s Aibileen again, full of Mammyish pride thinking about Miss Skeeter:

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)

Yes, I can see why Viola Davis chose to ignore Kathryn Stockett’s description of the maids who fall in line. They default into Aunt Jemima clones. Not so for her other threesome, namely Yule May, Lulabelle and Gretchen. It’s also worth noting that the three I just listed are full of fire or “uppitty” yet Stockett has each one pay for not going along with the program. Yule May winds up in jail, Gretchen misses out on the small profits of the book, and Lulabelle faces the cruelest hurt of all, losing her mother after shortly being reunited.

 

See, the dishonesty in a character like Aibileen, especially when written from a white perspective is that the character most often represents absolution.

To be absolved of any guilt seems to be a running theme in many books where race is front and center. Aibileen does this with Skeeter, by admonishing her to follow her dream, regardless of what may befall the maids she leaves behind:

“Are you scared Aibileen? she asks. “Of what might happen?”

I turn so she can’t see my eyes. “I’m alright.”

“Sometimes, I don’t know if this was worth it. If something happens to you…how am I going to live with that, knowing it was because of me?” She presses her hand over her eyes, like she doen’t want to see what’s gone happen.

I go to my bedroom and bring out the package from Reverend Johnson. She take off the paper and stare at the book, all the names signed in it. “I was gone send it to you in New York, but I think you need to have it now.”

“I don’t…understand,” she say. “This is for me?”

“Yes ma’am.” Then I pass on the Reverend’s message, that she is part of our family. “You need to remember, ever one of these signatures means it was worth it.” She read the thank-yous, the little things they wrote, run her fingers over the ink. Tears fill up her eyes.

“I reckon Constantine would a been real proud of you.”

Miss Skeeter smile and I see how young she is. After all we written and the hours we spent tired and worried, I ain’t seen the girl she still is in a long, long time.

“Are you sure it’s alright? If I leave you, with everything so…”

“Go to New York Miss Skeeter. Go find your life.” (Pg 436-437)

 

The parts I put in bold are the statements that Skeeter needs to hear, the statements absolving her of any guilt and responsibility for what happens in the future. For an indepth analysis of Aibileen, see this post:

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

 

 

The characters of Aibileen, Minny and Constantine are nothing new. The tagline of The Help could have been “See Delilah from Imitation of Life and Mammy from Gone With The Wind in the same movie!”

For not only were they “beloved” but also accepted, and in some cases validated by the very community they mocked.

Today, films like Soul Plane or some of the comedies by Tyler Perry are mentioned often as mis-representations of African Americans. They’re the stuff of divided opinions in the black community on the worth of such creations.

Soul Plane, featuring future Oscar winner Mo'Nique, rapper Snoop Dog and assorted famous faces

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few other films that provoked passionate disagreement:

Precious, Monster’s Ball, The Blind Side, Avatar,

Tyler Perry’s Medea, continuing a long line of males dressing as females, for both the white and black entertainers.

Tyler Perry as Madea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine”, a popular character in his comedy routine and also during the run of his TV show:

Flip Wilson as Geraldine, on stage with Sammy Davis Jr.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

"The Devil Made Me Do it" Geraldine's signature line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

History shows that males portraying women on stage were quite common, especially when laws forbid women actors. In both Japan and England, this was the norm.

In America, the practice of comedians portraying women and caricatures of their culture was the norm.

Comedian Milton Berle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dana Carvey as the Church Lady, a popular character from his stit on Saturday Night Live

Dana Carvey as the Church Lady

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman in drag

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Bugs Bunny as a woman

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

There’s also the need Stockett has to put a “happy” spin on what occurs at the end of her tale. As she reasons in her interview with Katie Couric:

“Aibileen is walking down the street in the sunshine and her heart’s broken but at the same time she’s walking into a new era. The Civil Rights Act had just been passed. She’s walking into a time where she didn’t have to wear her white uniform to walk into the white grocery store anymore. So I really wanted to give that sense of oh, we’re walking into better times.”

 

Aibileen walking off into the sunset and a still oppressively segregated Jackson, MS

 

But Stockett’s real life experience contradicts her rosy glow of things, when in the back of her novel and on her web site she admits her grandparents practiced their own form of segregation with their maid Demetrie. It’s important for readers and moviegoers to remember that Stockett was born in 1969. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Yet her grandparents continued on with the tradition of having Demetrie observe the invisible color lines well into 80s.

Stockett talks about not being able to let harm come to the characters when a book club member comments how it appeared the novel built up the suspense, but then nothing happened. It’s at 8:12 minutes into the interview, the book club member’s name is Vanessa and she says “My question is as I was reading The Help I was so gripped by the sense of of danger that everybody was in, then at the end, not to spoil it for anybody,  when it ended up pretty optimistic for all three of the main characters I was a little surprised. And I wonder did you consider having things not work out for at least one of the three.”

Stockett answers:
“Theres no way I could have harmed any of my main female characters. I just didn’t have it in my heart to do it. And also at the end of The Help, Aibileen is walking down the street in the sunshine and her heart’s broken but at the same time she’s walking into a new era. The Civil Rights Act had just been passed. She’s walking into a time where she didn’t have to wear her white uniform to walk into the white grocery store anymore. So I really wanted to give that sense of oh, we’re walking into better times. And of course Minny, her life didn’t change too much. Except we hope she gets out from under the thumb of her abusive husband. But yeah, I like the idea of them walking into a new era.”

However, a study completed by Professor Denoral Davis stated nothing had changed in Jackson as late as 1976. The professor interviewed a number of locals (the study was done quite a while ago).

To be continued . . .

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