Why the movie version of The Help can’t redeem the book

Posted on March 31, 2011

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The film version of the novel The Help is set to be released this August. Dreamworks is banking on the movie being a hit, and in truth it probably will be. Moviegoers, particularly white ones may fill the seats in hopes of rekindling the past and/or hoping to see parts of the novel they found endearing on the big screen. However,  by basing a movie on Stockett’s controversial novel, black actors have been thrust back into the past, where groveling and grinning on screen was mandatory, no matter what insult was written into the script for laughter, or how demeaning the dialogue they’d been given to recite.  

Drawing of Stepin Fetchit, ironically from the Disney movie "Mother Goose from Hollywood"

 

Hattie McDaniel with Olivia De Havilland and Vivian Lee. History repeats this August 2011, with Minny Jackson scowling and grumbling just like Mammy

 

If Stockett’s good friend Tate Taylor has included the “spoilt cootchie” scene from the novel, he risks alienating more than just the small percentage of black readers who recognized Stockett was drawing upon old myths that were spread of blacks being immoral and carrying “diseases”.

 

 

The novel has Aibileen and Minny musing over the venereal disease Aibileen has apparently given the woman Clyde has run off with, by of all things, Aibileen’s “power of prayer”.  From the novel:

“But Bertrina-” Minny get to laughing, say, “You know Cocoa, the one Clyde run off with?”

“Phhh. You know I never forget her.”

“Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up to her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa,. She know your prayer works.”

My mouth drop open. Why she never tell me this before? “You saying people think I got the black magic?”

“I knew it make you worry if I told you. They just think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.” (Pg 24)

There’s a youtube video with Stockett and actress Octavia Spencer running through this scene. Of note is how Stockett slips up (or either they’re reading from an earlier version of the novel) where Clyde is called “Plunk”. For any readers not familiar with why this is important, there was a real life Clyde AKA Plunk who was the abusive husband of Demetrie, the maid Stockett originally stated she based the character of Aibileen on. Unfortunately, it looks as if “Clyde” is yet another character Stockett crafted much too close on the real life person without their permission.

As backwards and offensive as the “spoilt cootchie” dialogue is (the “Black magic” reference is equally offensive, since African Americans were widely reported reverting back to “Voodoo” or “Black Magic” though we’d profess to be Christians), Stockett thought the words she’d crafted were so hilarious that she laughs in mid-sentence while doing her impression of Minny on the youtube clip. The link can be found via this post:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/stockett-voices-minny/

But for those whose parents (like mine) escaped the oppression of the segregated south and want no part of Kathryn Stockett’s misty, rose colored memories, there will be nothing entertaining or even remotely close to affection when The Help hits the screen.

Viola Davis as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny in the film The Help. Neither actress will be as well coiffed or dressed like their white co-stars

        

Skeeter, played by Emma Stone in the movie version of The Help, all dolled up

 

There are also a few things that pose a stumbling block for the film version of The Help.

First, there is the matter of Ablene Cooper’s lawsuit. For more information regarding the real life woman who claims Stockett used her name and likeness without her permission, click on the posts listed below:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/code-in-the-help/

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/stockett-being-sued/

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/life-imitates-art-saga-of-the-help/

Also,  there are other books making headlines. Non-fiction novels that not only don’t pull any punches regarding black/white relations during segregation, but one in particular documents the forceable rapes and assaults by white men on innocent black women.

The book is Danielle L. McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.            

At The Dark End of The Street by Danielle L. McGuire

 

From Booklist

“Long before Rosa Parks became famous for resisting Jim Crow laws, she was engaged in advocating for social justice for black women who were the victims of sexual violence at the hands of white men. Historian McGuire aims to rewrite the history of the civil rights movement by highlighting sexual violence in the broader context of racial injustice and the fight for freedom. Parks worked as an investigator for the NAACP branch office in Montgomery, Alabama, specializing in cases involving black women who had been sexually assaulted by white men––cases that often went untried and were the political opposite of the allegations of black men raping white women ending in summary lynching with or without trials. McGuire traces the history of several rape cases that triggered vehement resistance by the NAACP and other groups, including the 1975 trial of Joan Little, who killed a white jailer who sexually assaulted her. Despite the long tradition of dismissing charges brought by blacks against whites, several of the cases ended in convictions, as black women asserted their right to be treated justly.” –Vanessa Bush

 Additional information on the book from the publisher (Randomhouse):

Rosa Parks was often described as a sweet and reticent elderly woman whose tired feet caused her to defy segregation on Montgomery’s city buses, and whose supposedly solitary, spontaneous act sparked the 1955 bus boycott that gave birth to the civil rights movement.

The truth of who Rosa Parks was and what really lay beneath the 1955 boycott is far different from anything previously written.

In this groundbreaking and important book, Danielle McGuire writes about the rape in 1944 of a twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, Recy Taylor, who strolled toward home after an evening of singing and praying at the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama. Seven white men, armed with knives and shotguns, ordered the young woman into their green Chevrolet, raped her, and left her for dead. The president of the local NAACP branch office sent his best investigator and organizer to Abbeville. Her name was Rosa Parks. In taking on this case, Parks launched a movement that ultimately changed the world.

The author gives us the never-before-told history of how the civil rights movement began; how it was in part started in protest against the ritualistic rape of black women by white men who used economic intimidation, sexual violence, and terror to derail the freedom movement; and how those forces persisted unpunished throughout the Jim Crow era when white men assaulted black women to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy. Black women’s protests against sexual assault and interracial rape fueled civil rights campaigns throughout the South that began during World War II and went through to the Black Power movement. The Montgomery bus boycott was the baptism, not the birth, of that struggle.

At the Dark End of the Street describes the decades of degradation black women on the Montgomery city buses endured on their way to cook and clean for their white bosses. It reveals how Rosa Parks, by 1955 one of the most radical activists in Alabama, had had enough. “There had to be a stopping place,” she said, “and this seemed to be the place for me to stop being pushed around.” Parks refused to move from her seat on the bus, was arrested, and, with fierce activist Jo Ann Robinson, organized a one-day bus boycott.

The protest, intended to last twenty-four hours, became a yearlong struggle for dignity and justice. It broke the back of the Montgomery city bus lines and bankrupted the company.

We see how and why Rosa Parks, instead of becoming a leader of the movement she helped to start, was turned into a symbol of virtuous black womanhood, sainted and celebrated for her quiet dignity, prim demeanor, and middle-class propriety—her radicalism all but erased. And we see as well how thousands of black women whose courage and fortitude helped to transform America were reduced to the footnotes of history.

The state of Alabama has only recently issued a public apology to Recy Taylor, who was a twenty-four year old wife and mother when she was attacked by seven men. As McGuire’s book attests, the practice of raping black women and teens, and then labeling them as prostitutes once they made a formal charge against their attacker(s) was common. A chilling excerpt on the males who targeted and got away with the crime against Recy Taylor can be found here:

http://www.randomhouse.com/book/111678/at-the-dark-end-of-the-street-by-danielle-l-mcguire/9780307269065

 

Another groundbreaking novel is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s a book that pain-stakingly goes into the massive migration of African Americans from the south.

The Warmth of Other Suns

 

From Publishers Weekly:

“Starred Review. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man’s turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners’ plans to give him a “necktie party” (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by “the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own home town.” Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson’s magnificent, extensively researched study of the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an “uncertain existence” in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.”

It would be a mistake to dismiss the importance of novels that don’t sugar coat how African Americans were treated during segregation.

Because it puts more scrutiny on why Kathryn Stockett chose to ignore what really occured during segregation in order to tell a tale that has three black characters (Constantine, Aibileen, and Minny) as overweight caricatures who more than resemble Aunt Jemima. It also calls into question just how much research Stockett put into examining not just the time period, but the African American culture.

Ladies and Aunt Jemima

It’s being reported that Oscar winning actress Sissy Spacek, who plays Hilly’s mother Miss Walters has been given more dialogue, which means more screen time. If the screenwriters were smart, they’d also pass along some of the cringe worthy dialogue Stockett has the three primary maids uttering, lest it become obvious that Stockett played favorites with the white characters and has most of the African American leads functioning without a brain.
What they lack in analytical skills however, Stockett makes up for in their devotion to attend church. Aibileen and Minny do practically nothing except talk about other parishoners and even speak ill (and highly uninformed) about the civil rights movement rising up in their own backyard. It doesn’t take a history scholar to know that Jackson, Mississippi was a major hotspot for many years leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. There was the murder of 14 year old Emmet Till in 1955. There were also vast numbers of blacks on death row, convicted by all white juries (I’ll post stats and links to this travesty of justice up shortly). Stockett speeds past the protests by white students and the deadly violence during James Meredith’s entry into Ole Miss. In 1963, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed. Stockett has Aibileen and Minny reacting to Evers’ shooting “KKK shot him. Front a his house. A hour ago.” Minny speaking to Aibileen Page 194, yet later in the novel Stockett has Skeeter saying this:
 
They are scared, looking at the back door every ten minutes, afraid they’ll get caught talking to me. Afraid they’ll be beaten like Louvenia’s grandson, or, hell, bludgeoned in their front yard like Medgar Evers. (Pg 277)
 
Under Stockett’s direction Skeeter shows herself to be a piss poor journalist. Not only can’t she write her own housekeeping column, but she’s unable to think of a good premise for “Missus” Stein until Aibileen solves both her problems. And Skeeter can’t seem to recall that Medgar Evers was shot, not “bludgeoned” even though local newspapers, television coverage, and reporters from national magazines as well as black and white freedom riders from across America are virtually camped out in her city.  
 
Reality Bites:
Click on image for a larger view

The Rifle on the Front Page (The gun used to kill Medgar Evers)

 

 
 
 
See the rifle photo? It was on the front page of the June 19, 1963 copy of the Jackson Daily, since it was used in the SHOOTING of Medgar Evers. So the question isn’t what Skeeter could have been thinking by stating Evers was bludgeoned, but why were Stockett (and her editors) asleep at the wheel when handling Evers murder in the novel? In The Help, the white characters behave as if Medgar Evers murder, and for that matter, the civil rights activity in their city is no more important than missing a hair appointment. It’s as if the civil rights movement is in the way of Stockett telling her tale. And that’s probably why the book reads as if Stockett had no clue regarding what the freedom movement meant for all racial groups, not just African Americans. 
 
Of course the film will rectify Stockett’s error in the book. But that won’t change copies of the novel that were sold (and are still being sold) containing the erroneous passage. The mistake will remain until the publisher sees fit to correct it. And since the publisher has been mum, perhaps they wrongly believe no one caught it. What can’t be edited is Stockett giving two audio interviews in 2009 and earnestly reciting that Evers was “bludgeoned” (I kid you not).
The author had precious little credibility with me as I the read through the novel and grimaced at her stereotypical depictions and dialogue. After I heard the interviews,  she thoroughly blew it. Here are excerpts and where the interviews can be found:
   

Excerpt:

http://covertocover.podbean.com/2009/04/26/kathryn-stockett-the-help/

 “…that summer Medgar Evers, who was the field secretary for the NAACP was bludgeoned to death on his front steps. His children actually came outside and were covered in blood and he died in the hospital that night.” (5:51 minutes into the 29 minute interview)

Excerpt:

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

“…1963 was a horrifying and momentous year in Mississippi’s history as well as the entire United States. It was… the fall of 62 when James Meredith was accepted into Ole Miss and in 1963 Medgar Evers the uh…who was with the NAACP he was bludgeoned to death on his front yard in front of his children.”  (stated at 8:34 minutes into a 10:31 interview) 

  

Medgar Evers (AP Photo/Francis H. Mitchell - Ebony Collection, File)

There’s more than enough  insulting dialogue, as well as the questionable thoughts Stockett instills in her black characters. Take this scene a poster on Amazon.com pointed out:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lately, the meetings is more about civil rights than keeping the streets clean and who gone 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 is angry, yelling, crying. This the first one I come to since the shooting.  (Pg 207)

Statue in remembrance of Medgar Evers

Not only does Aibileen have selective memory regarding events in her own hometown (by this time actual history shows Jackson, Mississippi was a focal point of the nation and the White house for the events unfolding in the city).
 
  
 
Here’s an excerpt on what actually occurred after Evers’ death in the black community from Mississippi History Now –an online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society (its important to note that Evers was shot on June 12, 1963 and reportedly died at 1:00am) :

“The day after Evers’s death, several demonstrations broke out in the local black community in reaction to the murder. Black ministers and businessmen joined other angry blacks as they surged out into the streets. Jackson police used force to stop the demonstrations.

On June 15, 1963, Evers’s funeral was held at the Masonic Temple, with Charles Jones, Campbell College chaplain, officiating the service. A special permit was obtained from the city in anticipation of a large funeral cortege and march from the site of the services to Collins Funeral Home. The permit prohibited slogans, shouting, and singing during the funeral procession. After the service about 5,000 mourners joined the procession from the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street, east to Pascagoula, then north onto Farish to the funeral home. When the cortege reached the funeral home, approximately 300 young mourners began singing and moving south in mass toward Capitol Street, the main street of the capital city. The police, who had been shadowing the cortege, responded to mourners by using billy clubs and dogs to disperse them. The crowd then began hurling bricks, bottles, and rocks. A potentially deadly incident was averted when several civil rights workers, and John Doar, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer, beseeched the mourners to stop, which they soon did.” – author is Dernoral Davis, Ph.D.,  chairman of the history and philosophy departments, Jackson State University.

Link: http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/53/medgar-evers-and-the-origin-of-the-civil-rights-movement-in-mississippi

Comparing the above to Aibileen’s almost detached observations, and I’d say Stockett’s use of the word “frustrated” for Aibileen’s white washed assessement is more than understated.  And it shows just why authors need to depend less on their recollections of being around African Americans and more on concrete research.
 
 
That Stockett would downplay the boiling over tensions between blacks and whites, so as to pump up Skeeter’s stories on the maids is not only a greedy premise, but may ultimately backfire if the film handles it in a similar non chalant fashion.
 
I’m also including actual newspaper headlines from Jackson regarding the state of the city just after Evers murder:
 
Click image for a larger view:   

Death of Medgar Evers covered by the Jackson Daily News

 
 
  
 

June 16th article from Clarion Ledger and Jackson Daily Newspaper

Two against numerous police, June 16th pic (note how the accompanying information spins it)

 

A bit earlier in the novel Stockett even takes it a step further in downgrading the Freedom movement and clashes in Jackson. While neither Minny or Aibileen take part in any event to promote civil rights (like donating their time or funds or even Aibileen listing the freedom riders on her “prayer list” ) Minny makes a few highly ignorant statements regarding the attempts of a character named Shirley Boon, a woman she has a personality clash with:

“I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” Minny speaking of a person holding a community meeting concerning the Woolworth sit-ins (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)

These inner dialogue passages read as Stockett’s woeful attempt at interjecting comedy where none was needed. Minny sounds like a fool. And she sounds like a fool written by a writer who had no clue as to the black mindset during 1963, especially when most could tell freedom was nearly at hand. By this time celebrities (like Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, to name but a few) were marching along side Martin Luther King Jr. and others for civil rights. Yet Stockett writes Minny and Aibileen as if they’re back in the 1940s. As if they’re in a movie playing the maids giving off grumbling quips so the audience can laugh.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .
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