Does it matter who’s telling the story, as long as the story gets told? This is the question that has become a huge topic of debate surrounding Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help. It is directed at Stockett for writing this book, and the characters within her novel struggle with a similar question in their own fictitious storyline. Herein lies a very important aspect of history regarding the treatment and experiences of maids in the segregated 1960s, but should we be bothered because it took a white woman to get the story heard around the world?
In the black community, the majority have said yes. Stockett was criticized from the outset for using a black maid’s voice in her novel, and was even sued by her brother’s current nanny and maid for using her life experiences to help create the book’s main character.
In Stockett’s defense, she herself was raised primarily by a black maid, and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where her novel takes place. However even the characters in the book are skeptical of a white woman writing about black maids. As a maid in the novel says to the white main character, “Look at you. Another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people.” Stockett’s own characters don’t even let her off the hook.
Regardless of the criticism, The Help became an enormous hit — spending more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. That success is largely due to the novel’s white fans, who have latched onto this book with a furor akin to someone discovering To Kill a Mockingbird (a book to which this novel is often compared).
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And so now there is the movie. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer lead the way, two black maids with the courage to share their story with Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone, a burgeoning writer and rebel who aims to expose the complicated relationships of white families and their black help in the 1960s.
Davis and Spencer may lend the credibility the Dreamworks studio needs to convince black audiences to turn out for this film. Though the book certainly had the stigma of being written by a white woman, Davis and Spencer give authenticity to the main characters to make the film version of The Help much more tangible.
Viola Davis expertly brings Aibileen Clark to life, a quiet force who’s serving as nanny to her 17th child. Aibileen is the first maid approached by Skeeter Phelan to tell her story, and soon recruits good friend Minny Jackson to do the same. Minny is a character who was literally made for Octavia Spencer — Stockett met Spencer while writing the book, and modeled the outspoken character after her. Yes, both characters mirror stereotypes — Aibileen as the loving mammy, Minny as the sassy fat black lady. But it’s their relationship between each other where their characters shine, providing respite from the veils they must wear to exist in a white world.
The two maids form a friendship with Skeeter Phelan, secretly working together with other maids in their town to write a book of their experiences. Best town villain goes to Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Holbrook is championing an effort to make sure all white households have a separate bathroom for their maids, a campaign which consequently inspired Skeeter Phelan to write the book.
It’s a good movie, though still entertainment at its best — don’t expect it to delve deeply into the dark corners of the 1960s, this is still Hollywood after all. However the film does display the many complexities of being a maid in the segregated south. And I have to respect how the movie ended — though I’m sure Hollywood was tempted into a “happily ever after” conclusion, they tried to at least to honor a bit of reality in what would happen if a book was published about black maids and their white families.
While the novel may not have found a home in the black community, The Help should be a welcome film for a people who (I can’t say it enough) are starved for quality entertainment. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer create characters worth watching, people who you root for until the very end. Critics of the book may never like the film, but for those on the fence, The Help is worth watching.