Come awards time, what will Hollywood do with The Help?

Posted on July 31, 2011

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On the surface The Help movie looks like a perfect candidate for another “underdog” makes good story for Hollywood. But looks can be deceiving.

The touch Skeeter dared not do in the book but was created for the movie

There hasn’t been much controversy surrounding recent movies. In 2012 there just may be fireworks  if The Help and some of its cast become nominees.

At the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony, The Hurt Locker won for best picture in a stunning upset. And for the first time in history a woman received the coveted award of Best Director, former actress Kathryn Bigelow.

The Hurt Locker was a modestly budgeted film with a big message, that somehow won for Best Picture and Director.

In addition, actress/comedian Mo’Nique won the Oscar for Best supporting actress for her role as the abusive mom in Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

Christoph Waltz received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as a sadistic Nazi Officer in Tarrantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire won African American Geoffrey Fletcher an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

Before that, Slumdog Millionaire won for Best Picture at the 81st Awards Show held in 2009. In 2006 Crash won best picture, with a highly diverse cast and a storyline that showed prejudice came in all races.

Though last year’s ceremony was chided for being a virtual “whiteout” since unlike previous years, progress had been made in the racial and cultural diversity of the nominees, perhaps this year will be different.  

Hollywood likes to believe its quite liberal, and that belief will be put to the test if  The Help is nominated when major awards are handed out.

With a bit of racial redemption in the movie, that could make The Help’s message, as well as it’s cast seem like an early favorite.

That is, unless and until Hollywood has the courage and the sense to take a closer look.

It’s happened before. When rumblings about A Beautiful Mind’s deviation from the novel were pointed out, the thought was Russell Crowe lost what could have been his second best actor Oscar award.

A similar controversy erupted over the movie The Hurricane, when Denzel Washington was nominated  for best actor and the changes made from the novel and real life events caused a major protest.

The difference is The Help is based on a bestselling, but flawed novel of fiction which references real events. It also deals with a subject that liberals in Hollywood will gravitate to. But the movie repeats several of the problems within the book’s pages, and public inaccuracies by the author herself.

So the question is, what will Hollywood do?

I documented the major problems in the book on this post

Dreamsworks and in some respect, Disney relied on novice director and Stockett’s childhood friend Tate Taylor to fix what was wrong with the novel for the film. But in my opinion, that was where they made a second error. Because Taylor admitted solidarity in several published reports with Stockett’s broadly skewed vision.

So how would Tate Taylor know the pitfalls in the book, specifically in Stockett’s negative depiction of her African American characters? Especially since Taylor gave no indication that he even recognized where Stockett went astray?

For example, while its been reported that the vile character of Leroy is not seen in the film, his abusive actions are heard offscreen.  A fair share of moviegoers won’t know that the novel paints most of the black males using the segregationist ideology spread about blacks at the time.

This was not only inexcusable on Stockett’s part, but highly offensive. Yet Taylor remained solidly behind the author’s manuscript, even though he eventually changed scenes and dialogue for the film. The point being, both Stockett and Taylor were just fine with the original depictions. It was only after the issues were pointed out that attempts to correct them made. Whether it took the complaints of African Americans reaching their ears or the studio itself is not known.

But Stockett clearly had no idea during her PR tour for the book.

Many of the black males in the novel are clear stereotypes. All three of the black males associated with the primary maids are labeled as either  “no account” (Clyde, Aibileen’s ex spouse)  or  absentee fathers (Connor, who impregnated Constantine and abandoned her and their daughter Lulabelle, Clyde also leaves Aibileen and their young son) Minny calls her father “no-count” and a drunk, and then there’s the major problem of Leroy, who’s her twisted, abusive husband. Leroy is simply the black “brute” trope, first seen on screen (I believe) in “Birth of a Nation”, with a white actor in blackface.

Stockett, as the omni-present narrator in the novel, then has Minny make this far reaching and uncalled for assessment of black males “Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but that’s not something the colored woman do. We’re got the kids to think about.” Minny, Pg 311

Ironically, Stockett has no problem “telling” the reader that the white males who practiced segregation were men who, at their core were “good” (Stuart, after he dumps Skeeter and takes his engagement ring back) or “honest” (Skeeter says this about her dad Carlton Phelan, when he can’t or won’t give her any information on Constantine’s dismissal) or that Senator Stoolie Whitworth is simply doing the will of his constiuents when he stood with Governor Ross Barnett in blocking James Meredith from entering Ole Miss. And at the dinner party Stoolie attempts to reveal that he, like many of Stockett’s white males in the book is really a closet liberal. Constantine’s father is given a pass also since he’s a white male. Though he never marries the bi-racial maid’s mother and fathers several additional mixed children, because he cries and tells Constantine he’s sorry for her plight, there’s no negative label like “no-account” to taint his name or character.

Stockett also gives Hilly a “twist”, in that her love for her children makes her not as villainous as first thought. Yet no such twist is afforded to the black males in the novel. And the author even uses Aibileen to make the observation:

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

Stockett admits giving Hilly a good side was intentional in this published interview:

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

Interview with Celia Blue Johnson & Maria Gagliano for Slice Magazine

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

The redemption of her white characters come at the cost of labeling the black male as the true villain of segregation. They become the ultimate tormentors of Stockett’s maids in the novel. So much so, that by the end of the book and the movie, all three maids would rather live alone. Constantine and Aibileen swear off all male companionship early on in their lives as each of their romantic interests turn out to be severely wanting as men. While Minny finally escapes the abusive Leroy at the novel’s end, which is similar to how the movie handles it.

Way to write “revisionist” fictional history about Mississippi, a state documented as one of the most oppressive and violent during segregation. Because none of the black males I mentioned are afforded a “good side” even though they, like African American females were the main victims of sadistic bigots.

 

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

 
 
 

This is the rock and hard place Hollywood will be squeezed between with ths movie. By rewarding The Help movie, it will also be rewarding the twisted principles and views of blacks that prevailed during segregation. Views that made it into the novel, and now the movie.  

Because it appears all three maids are without a mate. And as I’ve listed, Stockett’s novel holds the sad clues as to the insulting reasons why.

 

In the movie, as in the book, Ole Miss has just given a four year diploma to journalism graduate Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan.  It’s 1962, and at the time  the real Ole Miss University was quite proud of adhering to its segregationist roots and following southern “traditions.”

Ole Miss sign, you can't "miss" it.

 
 
 
 
 
Yet somehow, the novel and the movie have Skeeter transformed into a liberal, though all her life she’d not only benefited from segregation, but truly believed in it.
 
 

Solidarity for Segregation at Ole Miss

 
 
 
 
 

Enter Constantine, played by Cecily Tyson. With Uncle Remus like advice and a touch of “magic negro” to melt Skeeter’s little segregationist heart.

Constantine, played by Cecily Tyson. Skeeter is played by Emma Stone. In the book Skeeter claimed to be able to see the blackness of Constantine's gums

In the novel Constantine was simply the same earth mother character Ethel Waters was relegated to play in Pinky and also A Member of the Wedding. Early reviews of the movie reveal that this character is no different in the film.

Pinky Promo poster, starring Ethel Waters and Jean Crain. The nurturing domestic was a popular character during segregation

 
 
 
“Ugly live up in the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person. Is you one a them peoples?” (Constantine, Pg 62)
 
And some readers wonder why the dialogue of the black characters could possibly read as stereotypical.  
 
 
 
When the movie begins Aibileen is the narrator, which is also how the book has it set up.
 
Skeeter is recording Aibileen’s words on paper, as reviewer Nicole Sconiers notes:
 
“The movie opens with a feminine white hand scribbling on a tablet as a black woman speaks in a weary voiceover. The hand holding the pen belongs to Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a cheeky 23-year-old graduate of Ole Miss who yearns to be a writer. Aibileen Clark, she of the weary voice, is being interviewed about her life as a maid . . . “Do you ever dream of being somebody else?” Skeeter asks.
 
. . . The opening scene told me everything I needed to know about the rest of the movie. Even though Aibileen speaks in voiceover throughout the film as if the story is hers, this is not her story. The story belongs to Skeeter, a curly-haired nonconformist. She is the only one among her pompadoured and spritzed Bridge Club homies, Hilly and Elizabeth, not desperate for a man, babies or a prominent place in society. Skeeter is the Good White Woman, the liberated woman disturbed by segregation, bothered that her white friends toss about the word “nigger” in the presence of their servants and deny them access to the commode. Skeeter is so “good” and so defiant in the face of Jim Crow that it seems she can single-handedly usher in the Civil Rights Movement.”
 

You can read the entire movie review here

But Skeeter is also a problematic character. Because it takes a great leap of faith to think someone raised to believe segregation was right, could suddenly discard a caste system that she’s been comfortable with all her life.
 
I think Macon D, who once regularly posted on his blog “Stuff White People do” and identifies himself as a white male,  said it best:
 
 
“. . .I’m not surprised that it took moving away from Mississippi, in terms of both distance and time, for Kathryn Stockett to “question the situation down there,” and I’m certainly glad she’s now “questioning” it. Racist thought and behavior on the part of whites during the Jim Crow era was just the norm back then, so seeing the evil in that, let alone thoroughly resisting it, would likely be very difficult while living in the thick of it, and while enjoying the privileges of membership in the white club.”

 
“. . .  it seems implausible that someone like Skeeter, having been born and raised at that time in Mississippi, would be so completely outside of that norm, so different from other white people. And again, it does seem plausible that Stockett (and perhaps her editors) portrayed her that way so that white readers can more readily see themselves in Skeeter. In this sense, and others, this novel is thoroughly white-framed entertainment, designed to appease, rather than challenge, the ostensibly liberal sentiments of white consumers.”
 
 
 
 
Which would explain a commentor on another blog observing that after the early screening of the film she’d just seen, some white moviegoers were hugging each other and crying. Upon seeing this display, her feelings were conflicted.
 
 
 
In the book Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007 scholar and author Micki McElya writes, “so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves — of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism — seem not to exist at all.”
 
 
 
So what does Hollywood do with a revisionist fictional lead character, and potential best actress nominee like Skeeter, played by up and coming actress Emma Stone?
 
A reluctant heroine whom the author, Kathryn Stockett admitted she created for her novel because:
 

“. . . she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. “I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,” she said. “So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.” 

Interview by Motoko Rich of  The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/books/03help.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

 
 
And Stockett, while voicing Skeeter,  clearly states in the novel that she “wasn’t out to change any laws . . . just attitudes”. Which goes along with the authors real life revelation during an audio interview:
 
 
“. . . this may sound ridiculous but I’m not criticizing the people that were living through those times and not questioning it. I’m just trying to examine it and also look at how far we’ve come.”

3:42 into the 10 minute audio interview with Steve Bertrand of Barnes and Noble’s Meet the Writers (no transcript available)

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

 
 
 
Stockett had already devalued the experiences of real African Americans under segregation. The author cavalierly explained her lack of research on the black culture and domestics themselves by stating:
 

“The voices of Aibileen and Minny came to me fairly easily once I got going,” she says. “I’d listened to the cadences and dialect of black Southerners most of my life, and I just played them back in my head.”

Interview with Jane Kleine of the Post and Courier

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

This resulted in caricatures instead of fully fleshed out black characters. But since stereotypes of minorities are readily accepted as “authentic”, particularly when created by white writers, Stockett was rewarded with praise instead of critical analysis. Accolades like this condescending pat on the back (items in bold are my doing):

Interview with Joni Evans of WOW.com

WOW: Oh, how interesting. How bold of you to write in the voice of a black woman.

KATHRYN: Oh, it’s not that bold if you think no one’s going to read it.

WOW: OK, so you’re writing this privately; you’re feeling this – your story – is only for yourself?

KATHRYN: Oh, yes.

http://www.wowowow.com/culture/the-help-todays-to-kill-a-mockingbird-with-author-kathryn-stockett/

 
And Stockett readily admitted using one woman to represent several black characters, but inserted the real life accounts of those in her immediate family. During another inteview with Barnes and Noble, Stockett admits adding her grandfather’s account of “catbite” into her novel (young black girl is bitten by rabid cat, Robert Stockett takes her to get medical care and pays the bill)
 
While on her PR tour, Stockett evoked Demetrie’s name and memory as if she were one of her offspring. Yet the book was instead dedicated to her grandfather. Stockett admitted her grandparents had Demetrie work under the rules of segregation even during the 70s and 80s, during the author’s formative years. It’s important that readers remember that The Civil Rights Act was signed passed in 1964. So the practice of continuing segregation was contrary to Federal Law.
 
Demetrie’s acknowledgement was placed at the end of the novel, not in the front pages in the form of a dedication.
While Stockett could have made a greater impact by having co-dedications, only Robert Stockett is given that sole honor in the novel. So what place did Demetrie really have in Stockett’s life?
 
Especially since the author chose not to research the very culture of the woman whom she says “would stand me in front of the mirror and say, “You are beautiful. You’re a beautiful girl,” when I was clearly not.
 
In return, Stockett created a novel that clearly sees no “beauty” in the black culture, just overweight, “black as asphalt” or “black as night” and “so black I couldn’t tell them apart” African American maids who don’t have a grasp on the english language, and appear oblivious to the civil rights movement rising to new heights in their own city.
 
Under Stockett, Demetrie’s inspiring motto was turned into stereotypical dialogue with these lines: “You is kind, you is smart. . .”
 
 
 
Intent and Effect

“. . . On the one hand I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told. But the truth is that I didn’t think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated I probably wouldn’t have written it in the type of language that I did.”

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

 
People read it. But apparently any serious “message” Stockett and co. will want Oscar voters to keep in mind will be drowned out by the awful tie in with HSN. Tasteless. Tacky. And possibly big trouble come awards time.
 
Pots and Pans “inspired” by The Help? Are you freakin’ kidding me?
 
Oh yes, I’d like to wear the dress Hilly wore when she told Aibileen that blacks and whites are so “different”
 
More on Dreamworks bone headed need to squeeze additional money out of  all this here:
 
 

This post is still in development. . . .

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