Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help has just been turned into a film. Both are enjoyable, but there are political problems with them and, in the case of the film, these problems are aggravated by conventional Hollywood presentation and story-telling.
The Help is set in early 1960s Mississippi, in the semi-apartheid set-up which existed from the late 1870s until the victories of the Civil Rights movement won at least formal legal equality for black Americans. Many of the black women in the small town of Jackson are maids for white women, cleaning their houses and bringing up their children, who then in turn become employers. This includes two of the film’s three heroines, Aibileen and Minny.
Most of the employers are, as you would imagine, deeply racist, and treat their servants in a manner ranging from degrading at best to deeply brutal at worst. The third heroine is Skeeter, a young, white, bourgeois woman who is increasingly disgusted with the reality of her community and becomes friends with Aibileen, before persuading her and other maids to help her write a book of their stories — a very risky project in the circumstances.
Despite Stockett’s obvious good intentions, both the book and the film have been criticised by black academics and activists.
The Association of Black Women Historians in the US argued that The Help “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” and “strip[s] black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment”.
They took particular issue with Stockett’s use of black dialect (the author is from Mississipi, but white), her nearly uniform portrayal of black men as cruel or absent, and her lack of attention to the sexual harassment endured by many women in white employers’ homes.
In The Help, pretty much all the abuse and mistreatment is done by the white women.
Having acknowledged all that, I think the problem is worse in the film than in the novel. The book is split into three parts, each narrated by one of the heroines; the film is a single narrative structure, and you could argue that it gives disproportionate attention to Skeeter — who, in addition, has been transformed from odd-looking and awkward into quirky but conventionally attractive.
On the issue of black men the balance in the book is different, with much more about Aibileen’s dead son, including flashbacks. In the film he is only mentioned in passing.
Most important, the book gives a much better sense of the degradation, violence and heartbreak faced by the black women as a routine part of their jobs and lives (and which many domestic workers around the world continue to face now).
That is much more airbrushed on screen. The film ends with sunlit vistas and inspiring music. There is a vein of humour in the book, but in the film it dominates everything. Despite some unpleasantness, wasn’t the Deep South jolly?
Read the book rather than see the film — and then go online to read some of the criticism.