Movie Tie-In Edition Of "The Help" Now On Sale

by Tambay A. Obenson
June 29, 2011 1:48 AM
4 Comments
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The movie tie-in edition of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel the film is based on - The Help - went on-sale yesterday! Although, based on your reactions to our posts about the film thus far, I'm betting most of you won't be rushing out to pick up a copy of your own, despite the new cover as shown below :)

Having read the book, I can say that while your concerns about the film are certainly warranted, this is actually a rare instance in mainstream/studio cinema history that places the black maid/white employer relationship under a microscope, in which we get to see events unfold from the black maid’s POV (at least for part of the novel), and are given a much more complex representation of her. She isn’t a 2-dimensional stereotype here. There are a lot of scenes for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to chew on, and whether or not the film succeeds in translating their characters to film remains to be seen. As the saying often goes, the book is usually better than the movie.

So I'd strongly suggest that if you do plan on ever seeing the film, when it's eventually released, make sure you read the book first!

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4 Comments

  • Michelle | June 30, 2011 6:14 AMReply

    Tambay,

    I appreciate your thoughtful remarks. I most appreciate your honesty about assessing Stockett's work on a curve. Like you, I didn't expect "The Help" to be a text reflecting a black radical tradition, but I did have high expectations given its acclaim--from both white and black readers.

    I do think it is possible for white popular writers to offer rich representations of black women's interiority. I would argue that Alexander McCall Smith does just that in his very popular "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series. Though he was first compelled to write about a black women through an observation of her body, he then goes on to ascribe to this woman a rich interior life as well as dignity, grace, and kindness. Mma Ramotswe also has a loving, supportive community around her that supports and sustains her. The reader can see how an oppositional consciousness (and here I take oppositional consciousness to mean views that run against the grain of the status quo) might grow out of that environment. So in a global milieu that encourages harsh punishment, Precious Ramotswe champions mercy and forgiveness in contrast. The HBO series based on the books, I think, does a good job of conveying what Smith's books try to achieve. To that end, I do not think it an over-simplification to contend that Stockett shows very little imagination concerning black women's transgressive engagements. Her work offers merely a sentimental cliche of black women as social and political actors. It does a disservice to both the history and the popular representation of black community to suggest that a crusading white woman exclusively facilitates black strides toward liberation. While I do agree with your assessment that this work serves those who invested money in it, I want to also claim that it more insidiously serves white supremacy. Stockett's work supports an imperialist notion that black folk need white intellectual armamentarium. To that end, this work is about "Miss Skeeter," as you have suggested, but we're supposed to like her, root for her, and see her as good. We're not supposed to criticize her for using those black women as tools, which is what the novel does in not making it about the black women. Instead, we are to blame the black women if they do not take up "Miss Skeeter's" cause on their behalf. So yes, those who invested money are indeed interested in profits and this story definitely contributes to what Du Bois called "the wages of whiteness." (I wonder if Abileen got to that part of "Black Reconstruction"...not in Stockett's book.)

    There are plenty of black stories written by black folk featuring black maids/nurse maids/nannies that deserve public attention, acclaim, and support. Alice Childress's "Like One of the Family" is dope; Barbara Neely's "Blanche White Series" is out of print but can be purchased at Amazon, is dope; Jamaica Kincaid's "Lucy," is dope. You want visual culture? Have a look at Richard S. Roberts's photograph of a black maid in her uniform as well as out of it; Gordon Parks's work on Ella Watson; Stanley Nelson and Elizabeth Clark-Lewis's "Freedom Bags." I'm not willing to GIVE Stockett any more credit for that novel.

  • tambay | June 29, 2011 9:20 AMReply

    @ Michelle - It's what I call "grading on a curve." I didn't expect some revolutionary text when I picked up the book to read it, knowing what I knew about the author, and given past stories about the experiences of black people, told from a non-black person's POV.

    And, really, I'd say that none of the characters in the story, save for the single star of the novel, had what we'd call "rich interior lives." Let's be frank, it's her story, not Abileen's.

    But for a book of its nature and origins, I appreciated the author's attempts to actually give these characters their own lives and thoughts. They may not be fully realized characters, but they aren't 2-dimensional cardboard cut-outs either, or just background fodder.

    And I didn't quite see it as the black maids needing the white woman's encouragement to seek any sort of transformation. I think that's too simplistic a way to characterize what transpires..

    I'd suggest watching a film like Ousmane Sembene's "Black Girl" for a character in a somewhat similar predicament, with a rich, complex, interior life. That film is really all about her interior life. It's about her. "The Help" unfortunately isn't.

    As for who it serves... the people who have invested money in making it mostly. They don't particularly care about producing material that's transformative or transgressive.

    Until one of us (black people) tells this particular story, placing the black maids front and center, we'll have to continue grading on a curve.

  • Michelle | June 29, 2011 8:57 AMReply

    If the film basis the interior lives of these characters on the novel, then it will certainly suffer. The characters in the novel do not have very rich interior lives at all. I found the black women in the novel very limited. Though Abileen is supposed to be a reader of Du Bois and Douglass, for example, why doesn't her speech appear to be informed by DuBois or Douglass? And if she is a woman who prays, how could she possibly forget to pray for her son? Furthermore, black women did not historically need white women's encouragement to seek social/political/civic/personal transformation. Who does this work serve?

  • Tamara | June 29, 2011 8:18 AMReply

    Read the book first, indeed.

    How will it translate? INDEED!!! lol We shall see :-)

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