Monday, August 15, 2011

"The Help": Historians Criticize an Autobiographical and (A)historical Novel

A group of historians has issued a statement strongly criticizing the blockbuster movie, "The Help."  The movie, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, is set in Mississippi during the 1960s.  The book tells the story of black domestic servants and the white women who employed them. Demetrie McLorn, a black woman who worked as a maid for the novelist's family, prominent white Mississippians, partly inspired her work. McLorn played a large role in raising Stockett, born in 1969. Hence, Stockett's novel was partly autobiographical; it reflected the author's memory of growing up in Mississippi in the years following the civil rights era. When published in 2009, the book received many favorable reviews. But some critics objected to its stereotypical portrayal of black characters and its inattention to historical context--civil rights activism, in particular.  Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times called the book "problematic but ultimately winning," even as the critic noted that "[n]ews of the real world seeps into the book only occasionally."  Reviews of the movie have been similarly mixed. Manohla Dargis' review of the film for the Times noted, for instance, that the movie often deals with race matters clumsily, if at all.
Copyright Basic Books, 2009

These characteristics of the film and novel prompted the Association of Black Women's Historians to issue its statement, which reads, in part:                                                                         

Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.
 During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women's employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help's representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy -- a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.
The association's website refers those interested to Jacqueline Jones' Bancroft prize-winning classic, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, among other works, for further reading on the women and workers who are the backdrop for Stockett's novel. The movie's producers have not responded to the criticism.

What might the domestic workers portrayed in The Help think about the book/film?  Demetrie McLorn, Stockett's maid, died many years ago, well before the novel's publication. But earlier this year Ablene Cooper, a 60-year-old black woman household worker who shares the first name of a central character in Stockett's novel, filed suit against the author. Cooper claimed that the novelist misappropriated her name and image. And how's this for a narrative twist? Cooper has worked for Stockett's brother for over a decade, and the brother--who reportedly "loves" Cooper--fully supported his maid's suit against his sister. "[T]hey told me to do what I got to do,” said Cooper of Stockett's brother and sister-in-law.

In the end, Ablene Cooper may find it difficult to prevail on her claim (assuming that she inspired a character in Stockett's novel).  As I understand it, the law generally affords writers considerable artistic license in such circumstances. But winning in court may not constitute the only measure of just deserts in this case. Judging from what I've read, Cooper has gained approbation in some quarters and, perhaps, a bit of personal satisfaction, simply by airing her claim.