Saturday, October 29, 2011

Helping and The Help

Insights from Taylor and Stockett
This summer's film The Help is based on Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name. The novel, in turn, centers around the writing of another book, also of the same name. So it is a work of fiction about a fictional work of memoir, but it is permeated with uncomfortable truths.

My favorite librarian recently devoured the book over teh summer, and has written about the book's subplots regarding  libraries. She was enthusiastic about seeing the film, which we very much enjoyed, even though libraries were among several important threads of the story that were dropped in the film adaptation.

Because it marches boldly into such delicate terrain, the book and especially the film have generated quite a bit of controversy, mainly around two questions: First, why did actresses such as Viola Davis accept roles as maids, which represent the marginalization of African Americans in and by Hollywood?  Second, why is this story of African Americans told by a white author through the eyes of a white protagonist, herself a white author?

When Viola Davis addressed the first question in an NPR interview, she emphasized the heroism of her character, Aibileen Clark. This is a work of fiction whose heroes echo the real heroes of the period, and they included maids. (The dismissal of the role is itself a symptom of a pervasive bias against working people that I have addressed in other posts.) I also notice that throughout her stage and screen career, Viola Davis has played quite a variety of roles, many in law enforcement, so she does not have anything to prove about "accepting" stereotypical roles.

Because Stockett's book is about a white author helping to tell the story of her black neighbors, questions about the legitimacy of this role are an important part of the book, though they are not addressed so directly in the film. The question is inherent in the film, and for me the answer is in the character of Skeeter, the young idealistic writer who wins the trust of two of the maids she knows, who in turn bring a larger group of their peers into the writing project. Skeeter is brave, eventually putting her privilege on the line and even taking on some personal risk.

It is essential that Skeeter knows she is not as brave as the women who tell their stories through her. She knows that they put themselves at even greater risk by cooperating with her, and it is they who must decide for themselves whether those risks are worth taking. This aspect of the story vividly reflects the reality of this and so many other struggles for civil rights: allies in the fight are never as important as the principals, nor do they usually risk as much. But in Mississippi and elsewhere, some white allies did take risks, some fatally so. The efforts of such allies are never alone sufficient, but they do have meaning.

Whether or not the answers to these questions are adequate, the fact remains that The Help tells an important and nuanced story, and tells it well. It may be because my own upbringing was in many ways just on the periphery of this story that I find it especially compelling. I grew up in a social class a bit lower than that of the Junior League characters in the film, in a state a bit further north, and in a period just a few years later. (I grew up, in fact, very close to the story told by another important movie: Mr. & Mrs. Loving.) So while nothing feels exactly like home in this film, much of it strikes very close to home!

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