International Black Velvet – How The Help is seen beyond the U.S.

Posted on August 23, 2011

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UK Cover of the Help AKA The cover they dared not put on US bookshelves

 

 

The UK at least used a cover that reflected what was inside. And their trailer for the film shows a lot more gravity than the one used in the US. You can compare trailers listed on this post.   Seems over here (in the US) it’s all about bringing the “fun” or “funny” to segregation, as per producer Chris Columbus claimed while echoing Kathryn Stockett’s words.

 

Salt and Pepper’s here. Celia and Minny, making segregation “fun” for all.

Unfortunately the same pattern of falling in love with a story without much thought occurred when the novel was released overseas, as many reviewers seemed not to wonder if anything Stockett wrote on the black culture was remotely accurate. After all, fiction has become the catch all when an author gets busted for not doing the necessary research. The Medgar Evers error on Pg 277 and Stockett repeating that Evers was “bludgeoned” in three audio interviews would be a prime example. More info here. But more important, it gives fans a chance to claim inconsistencies don’t matter because the author has artistic license.

 

 

 

Let’s test that theory when the first “humorous” book on 9/11 comes out claiming there was only one plane involved, if there ever will be such a novel in the next fifty years. Kathryn Stockett took a shameful period in American history and put a “play that funky music white girl” spin on it. It may be called The Help, but the maids are supporting players. And just like American reviewers didn’t find it hard to believe Aibileen would remain sexually celibate for oh, twenty years because she’d fallen for the wrong kind of man, so did reviewers in other countries, even calling the maids “Mammies” while never realizing how offensive that term is in the states. Nevermind that many of the countries which had The Help no. 1 on their bestseller lists and up for a number of awards probably have a similar yarn of treating people of color in their own country less than hospitable. Maybe its always better to see how the other half lives. Or oppresses their “coloreds” Here are a few of the reviews I read on the novel which come mainly from the UK (the remainder of this post is from an earlier post on this site titled Failure to Communicate):

 

 

From Amazon’s UK Site Promo:  The other side of Gone with the Wind – and just as unputdownable (The Sunday Times)  A big, warm girlfriend of a book (The Times)  A compelling, great first novel, with soaring highs, poignant side stories and laugh-out-loud anecdotes. You’ll be sorry to finish it. (Psychologies)

Here’s the Sun Times review where the GWTW line was taken:

Within a few pages it is obvious that Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (Fig Tree £12.99) is not from the life-is-a-whole-heap-of-beans school of American Deep South writing, but warm and sincere nevertheless. Yet the reader will have to decide whether the author is good enough to persuade us that she has the authority or experience to write as a black person in Tennessee during the era of “Jim Crow” laws in the 1960s. If you feel that she has, the novel will suck you into the lives of Minny and Aibileen, two black maids, and Miss Skeeter, the white girl who persuades them to let her write about their lives for a book that will cause mayhem if it is published. Here on the page is the hounding of human beings, the terror and injustice, the courage needed to take the first steps to dismantle such an out­rageous regime — writ mundane and within a domestic context, but huge in its ramifications. It is the other side of Gone with the Wind — and is just as unputdownable.

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/fiction/article6624558.ece

 

 

 

Here’s more of the Times review. And yes, feel free to have a WTF? moment at the last line that I’ve put in bold:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett Fig Tree, £12.99; 451pp This is a big, warm girlfriend of a book about female love that transcends race and class. It’s set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 and Aibileen is a black maid, raising her 17th white baby. “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do,” she says, “along with all the cooking and the cleaning.” Her best friend, Minny, is a short, stout termagant of a cook. Skeeter is a white girl fresh out of college who is now expected to get married. These three women manage to reach across the gulf, to try to change their world. The author, herself a native of Jackson, has a fine understanding of the delicate relationship between Southern belles and their mammies.

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/fiction/article6740183.ece

 

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t view the novel the same way as all those highly entertaining reviews.  

“The other side of Gone with the Wind – and just as unputdownable”

Did I miss something? Was the novel about slavery? Was Mammy still alive in 1962? Or maybe this is referring to Faye Bell, a woman who can remember Yankee Soldiers and still feels the need to clean though she’s over one hundred years of age (Pg 257)

 

“A big, warm girlfriend of a book”

No. Just. No.

Stockett went overseas and gave this additional information on Demetrie, her grandparents maid.

Kathryn Stockett in her own words, Dailymail UK

“. . . Demetrie came to wait on my grandmother in 1955 and stayed for 32 years. It was common, in Mississippi, to have a black domestic cleaning the kitchen, cooking the meals, looking after the white children. And growing up, I adored Demetrie as much as my own mother. In some ways, she was better than our mother, who was always busy (I am one of five). Demetrie played games with us all day and never got cross. She knew to rock us on our stomachs when we ached. She knew she needed to go to the doctor with me every time I had an injection. None of us would sit still for an injection without Demetrie there.

But her role was more complicated than that of a maid. Demetrie understood, to the letter, what she was and was not allowed to do as a black person working for a white family in Mississippi. Rule number one: she wore a white uniform to work, every day. That white uniform was her ‘pass’ to get into white places with us – the grocery store, the state fair, the movies. Even though this was the 70s and the segregation laws had changed, the ‘rules’ had not.

In 1970s Mississippi I didn’t have a single black friend or a black neighbour. Yet one of the closest people to me was Demetrie, our family’s black housekeeper. . . ”

See the full article here:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1199603/This-Life-Kathryn-Stockett-childhood-Deep-South.html

 

 

 

Interview with UK site BookRabbit

Excerpt:

“I couldn’t stand to write a book that wasn’t funny or at least trying to be funny. And part of what I wanted to do was show the absurdity of the situation. But I really enjoyed trying to make people laugh, I can’t handle too much trauma!”

http://www.bookrabbit.com/blog/interview-with-kathryn-stockett-and-win-a-copy-of-the-help/

 

 

Interview with Boof of The Book Whisperer

Excerpt:

Boof: I found the book laugh-out-loud in places, particularly where Minny was concerned: was this deliberate from the start or did Minny’s humour develop during the writing process? Did you know you were funny before you started write?

“Oh gosh, I’m not funny at all. I don’t like writing too much trauma. I want to be entertained myself as well as the readers; I can’t stand too much trauma. I think the book needed some humour.”

http://boofsbookshelf.com/2010/06/11/interview-kathryn-stockett-author-of-the-help/

 

 

Interview with Jessamy Calkin of the UK site The Telegraph

Excerpt:

“She talks like a Southern belle, though it’s probably the English concept of a Southern belle; ‘Would y’all care for something to sip on?’ she asks. She serves tea and cake while telling me about when she attended ‘culinary school’, caressing the words in her high sing-song voice.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

 

 

Interview with John Barber for Saturday’s Globe and Mail

“I’m still waiting for the jack-in-the-box to pop,” she says, “for somebody to corner me and say everything I say in my own head – that I had no right to do this.”

In fact, some have done that, accusing the author of the very contemporary sin of cultural appropriation. But when it comes, Stockett says, the criticism is sometimes a relief. “I do wish that people talked about the subject of race, especially in the South,” she says. “It’s just a really hard and uncomfortable topic.”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/kathryn-stocketts-southern-discomfort/article2012818/singlepage/#articlecontent

 

 

The reviews from the UK don’t surprise me. Assumptions about African Americans, and the almost uniform agreement that caricatures like the ones in The Help are “authentic” will probably always be around. Years ago, there were two novels which dealt with race that were also huge best sellers and sparked intense debate. One was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The other was Fannie Hurst’s 1933 blockbuster Imitation of Life.

 

 

Take a look at what some newspaper reviews said about the novel Imitation of Life:

“The black, bulging Delilah abounds in the warm vigor which is Fannie Hurst at her best. I can think of no character of (Hurst’s) since Lummox who is as actual a creation as the mammy whose face and skill were the foundation of Bea’s fortune. (NY Herald Tribune)

“One of the most magnificently drawn characters in all the great store of literature depicting Negro life.” (Cinncinnati Enquirer)

“Most of us have at some time known a servant who partook in some measure of the nature of Delilah.” (Christian Science Monitor)

In the novel Delilah is described as “the enormously buxom figure of a woman with a round black face that shone above an Alps of bosom…the chocolate and cream effulgence that was Delilah. The heavy cheeks, shellacked eyes, bright, round and crammed with vitality, huge upholstery of lips that caught you like a pair of divans into the luxury of laughter.”

Any of this sound familiar?

How about when African American critic Sterling Brown wouldn’t join the lovefest for the book:

“It requires no searching analysis to see in Imitation of Life the old stereotype of of the contented Mammy, and the tragic mulatto . . . Delilah is straight out of Southern fiction. . . Her idiom is good only in spots; I have heard dialect all my life,  but I have yet to hear such a line as “She am an angel.” Sterling Brown’s review from the magazine Opportunity.

All this was going on in 1933, and now here we are in 2011 with African Americans still being portrayed as servants who know their place. Which would be helping spunky Skeeter reach her goal, and nevermind theirs. Because having  fictional black domestics choose Skeeter over the lasting legacy the civil rights movement offered is clearly Hollywood fantasy.

And that’s what many who love the novel and now the movie don’t seem to understand.

Column A or Column B? Seeing teens and children marching for civil rights and putting their lives on the line

while I hide out writing stories in secret with Miss Skeeter?

Is that truly heroic?

The littlest victim of Segregation

Or simply a premise to insert white activism into a movement that was started from the ground up by African Americans?

A big part of the issue here is that Hollywood simply ignored the horrors of segregation until it could find suitable vehicles for their white stars to play hero.

The Help follows in this time dis-honorable tradition, and now many seem surprised at any criticism of yet another half baked effort. I’ve got a post up titled So Where’s Our Schindler’s List?   Because filling the screen with silly women, as if to claim that segregation was simply the town villain’s anger (Hilly, the over the top segregationist in both the book and the movie) at losing during bridge won’t cut it. Neither will the simply nasty premise of Minny filling a pie with her own feces, like somehow that was any justice for this:

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

I’ve mentioned a number of individuals who stood shoulder to shoulder with African Americans, PUBLICLY SHOWING THEIR SUPPORT.

Like Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, shown here with Anne Moody and Hunter Grey Bear in the famous Jackson, Mississippi Woolworth sit-in photo:

1963 Jackson, Mississipp Woolworth sit in. Joan is seated in the center.

And William Moore, who wore a billboard proclaiming equality, and earned a bullet in the head for his efforts:

Freedom Walk, a book on William Moore

Per Jerry Mitchell, a well known journalist who writes and documents the Civil Rights Movement:

“In the spring of 1963, William Moore of Baltimore, a white postal worker, decided to walk from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to deliver a letter to Gov. Ross Barnett, urging him to break down the walls of segregation in Mississippi. . .

During his one-march man, Moore wore a sandwich board that read, “Equal Rights For All. Mississippi Or Bust.”

Along the way, he encountered plenty of hate. Some people threw rocks at him and yelled “n—– lover.”

On the night of April 28, 1963, while resting on his journey in Attalla, Ala., he was shot twice at close range. Kennedy called his killing ‘an ‘outrageous crime. ‘ ”

http://blogs.clarionledger.com/jmitchell/2010/02/08/postman-william-moore-among-the-many-slain-during-the-civil-rights-movement/

 And Violla Liuzzo:

Violla Liuzzo, shot and killed while driving from a civil rights protest. Her famous quote “It’s everybody’s fight”

And the Freedom Riders killed by the Klan in 1963. From left to right, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.

The missing Freedom Riders

But let’s start at the beginning shall we?

Because The Help is simply a book that takes character portrayals from other earlier novels, which resurrect the black woman as a “Mammy” that insidious label meant to flatter but instead dredges up images like these:

Big and Bossy, “Sassy” maid stereotype

 

 

 

Sheet music portraying Mammy and child. Image from Ferris State Museum of Memorabilia

I’m again going back to an earlier version of the docile Aibileen character, who can be found in Imitation of Life:

Here’s Delilah’s dialogue in the 1934 movie when Bea, the woman Delilah and her daughter Peola (gotta love that name. Sorta like Cleontine, Pascagoula, Jameso, Treelore and Plaintain from the Help) live with. Bea offers to give Delilah 20% of the pancake business that was Delilah’s family recipe:

Bea: “You’ll have your own car. You own house.”

Delilah: My own house? You gonna send me away, Miss Bea? I can’t live with you? Oh honey chile, please don’t send me away. How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie if I ain’t here? I’se your cook. And I want to stay your cook. I gives it to you (her family’s pancake recipe), honey, I makes you a present of it.”

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay in Imitation of Life. There’s a scene in The Help where Aibileen implores Skeeter to keep her own the maids stories manuscript

 

 

 

Aibileen expresses almost the same sentiment of devotion and affection for Skeeter, handing over her son’s book idea without asking for anything in return. While Aibileen does most of the leg work, like rounding up the maids, it’s Skeeter who wins the jackpot, landing a new job as Aibileen finally unleashes the river of tears she held in over her deceased son:

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 start too. The cleaning article, that’s new. But I’m not young My life’s about done. (Pg 437)

And Minny decides to take matters into her own hands, all for the protection of Miss Celia:

All I know we can’t just sit here like a duck dinner, waiting for him to get in. All he has to do is break a floor to the celing window and step in (keep in mind he’s naked) Lord, I know what I have to do. I have to go out there. I have to get him first. “You stand back Miss Celia, ” I say and my voice is shaking. I go get Mister Johnny’s hunting knife, still in the shealth, from the bear. . . “Lock the door, I hiss behind me. “Keep it locked.” I hear the click.

Unless you are stark raving mad, no one would give their family’s secret recipe up (Delilah, Imitation of Life) and not expect to get paid, and still want to be someone’s cook and maid without receiving wages. Same thing goes for Aibileen’s crying over Skeeter. And going outside to confront a pervert to protect Celia, when she’s (Minny) carrying her sixth child?

Truly weird, this wish fulfillment some writers have for minority characters. It’s the “noble savage” or “magic negro” myth revisited. We’re only considered “good” if we’re willing to show how far we’ll go to prove our devotion and “love” for someone white. Yet neither Skeeter from The Help, or Bea from Imitation of Life exert much effort themselves to show how much they appreciate the sacrifices of the black character(s). Much too one sided, and it harkens back to the mindset during segregation that insisted blacks be a “credit to their race” by showing humility and serving whites with a smile (Aunt Jemima, a reminder still around today).

All these scenarios, written by two white authors who assume that this is how a black woman would and probably should behave. I. Don’t.Think. So.

In Kathryn Stockett’s case, all this affection the black characters seem to have are based on her childhood recollections of her grandparents maid Demetrie. A single woman inspired far too many clones. Stockett may have thought she knew Demetrie, after viewing her through the eyes of a child. But Stockett never knew Demetrie THE WOMAN.

Thankfully, there are now UK journalists at least mentioning the dissention the novel has stirred up, which was missing when the novel hit their bookstores. That’s least something.     The UK site The Telegraph mentions actor Wendell Pierce’s view of the polarizing film:

 

 

The Help tops US box office but hits controversy

Adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help, about white women and black housekeepers, is criticised by Wire actor Wendell Pierce as ‘segregation lite’.

 

By Martin Chilton, Digital Culture Editor

 

” . . .The Help was well done but was a passive version of the terror of Jim Crow South . . . My mother told me how she wasn’t allowed in the kitchen. She couldn’t eat during a 12-hour shift . . . She couldn’t drink water from the kitchen but had to go to the faucet outdoors . . . Watching the film in Uptown New Orleans to the sniffles of elderly white people while my 80-year-old mother was seething, made clear distinction … the story was a sentimental primer of a palatable segregation history that is Jim Crow light. . . ”

See the full article here:

telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/8716498/The-Help-tops-US-box-office-but-hits-controversy.html

 

 

If you’re reading this post, then perhaps viewing the accounts of other African Americans, which include children of “Help” as well as women who were domestics during segregation would be of interest: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/actual-accounts/

 

 

To be continued . . .

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