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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
“…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)
“…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)
“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.
“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.