‘The Help’ Controversy: Perspective of a Film Location Townie

The internet is buzzing with controversy surrounding Kathryn Stockett’s book and the recently released movie adaptation of, ‘The Help.’ and for once, Mississippi is ahead of the times. Here in Greenwood, Mississippi, we’ve been talking about the movie for over a year. In the summer of 2010, Hollywood invaded this small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta to shoot the film.

When the news was first published in our local paper, where I am a weekly humor columnist, I was not impressed. I heard other moms squealing about Hollywood, bit movie parts for their kids and getting to see real live actors and actresses. But I was leery- I wondered if Greenwood was chosen not just for its aesthetic appeal and majestic pecan trees but because out of every place in this country where the film could have been shot, Greenwood was the best representation of 1960′s Mississippi. (I may have just lost some Facebook friends.)

The current controversy centers around the feeling that the story of ‘The Help,’ was not a white person’s story to tell. Those opposed to the story feel that Skeeter, the main character of the story and a white woman, used the black domestic workers to further her own ambitions. They feel ‘The Help’ minimizes and ignores the work done by thousands and thousands of Civil Rights workers who didn’t need or wait for a white person to tell their story. Furthermore, they are sick of Hollywood telling the Civil Rights story only when there is a “White Savior,” involved. Mississippi Burning, Dangerous Minds, and The Blind Side have been listed among other films guilty of doing this. It’s a point difficult to argue.

I can understand all these points. I can see when considering trends in literature and film this minimizes the voices of brave black souls who have fought and died to make our country a place where everyone’s voice can be heard. I respect the right of every reader to love or hate any piece of literature as they see fit.

But here’s the thing. I live here. If your argument is that there is no truth to Stockett’s story then I vehemently disagree with you.

Do black people need white people to tell their stories for them? No.

But some of the scenarios Stockett describes are as commonplace in Mississippi as cotton and 99% humidity.

Do I like this? Absolutely not. But good books are like mirrors, oftentimes they show us things we don’t want to see.

I grew up in a small town in Alabama, a town where color lines were drawn through the town by railroad tracks. A town where, at my public elementary school, there were less than five black students.

My husband graduated from a county school a few miles from my own and never had a black student in his entire school from kindergarten until he graduated from high school.

After we married, we hit the road. We lived in Fort Worth, Texas, Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, stopping for around two years in each city. In all of these large and Southern cities there were certainly racial issues and divides, but neighborhoods weren’t as easily separated by railroad tracks and we loved this. Our churches were racially diverse and culturally rich.  Our children had friends every shade of the rainbow.

Then we moved to Mississippi.

The first week of school in her private school, my five-year-old daughter, who sees skin in shades of Crayola (her own is peach and not white) asked, “Momma, where are all the brown people?” I was stumped. There are a few black students at her school but in her building there were none.

I can understand people being hurt by the connotation that black people need a white “voice” to be heard. I understand that they most certainly do not. But I also understand that there is a lot of truth in Kathryn Stockett’s novel.

I know black people and white people alike who speak in the highly criticized vernacular in which Stockett wrote her dialogue. I know women who in 2010, as mind boggling as it was to me, hid their copies of ‘The Help’ in bedside tables because they didn’t want their own “help” to feel uncomfortable or offended if they saw the book lying around- as if those women had no idea what their own job descriptions were. I know women who have had the same “help” working for them for forty years, who treasure these women as more than valuable employees but truly consider them family.

The South’s Civil Rights past is ugly. The way black people were treated and discriminated against (and still are on ocassion) is inexcusable and a disgrace. I worried when ‘The Help’ started filming in my community the nation would look at this place I’ve grown to love with disdain.

I worried that the filming would increase racial tensions. Millions of dollars were pumped into the local economy. A good percentage of that money went to individuals, black and white, who made appearances in the film as extras. But call time on the sets found most of the black extras in maid and chauffeur uniforms, while the white extras were given 60s hairstyles, makeup and elaborate costumes.

Instead of stirring up discord, the film brought unresolved issues of race back to the front page of the paper and helped bring new perspective to old problems. The proceeds of the movie’s premiere in Madison, MS, (Greenwood is so small we don’t even have a theatre) went to help rebuild Baptist Town, the area of Greenwood used as the backdrop for the maids’ homes and the birthplace of many a Blues legend.

‘The Help’ boosted more than our economy. My community is proud of this film. They are excited to see their grandfathers, sisters, uncles, cousins, nieces and best friends on the big screen. People are happy that the rest of the world will be able to enjoy our pecan trees and sweeping views of Delta farmland. The people I’ve talked to, black and white, hope that instead of letting this story and the controversy surrounding it further divide us, it will serve as another reminder of how far we have left to go.

Mississippi has come a long way since the 1960s but we still need a little help.

(Full disclosure: I have read the book. I have not yet seen the film though I plan to. No member of my family was involved in any part of the production or filming. We probably would have auditioned had I not been recovering from surgery. I can’t wait to sit in the theatre and see faces and places I love on the big screen.)

 



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Comments

  1. says

    What a wonderfully written perspective. Thank you for taking the time to write this…..I loved the book and am very much looking forward to seeing the movie, more so after reading your post.

  2. says

    Wonderfully written and I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t read the book nor have I seen the film yet. I would love to do both. I think, “The Help” just might show a historical portion of our country. We may not like it. We may not agree with it, but it is what it is. It’s a part of our history whether we like it or not, it’s not going anywhere. I hope both the book and the film compassionately tells the story of all of the women involved.

  3. says

    I LOVED this book. I loved it. I tell everyone to read it. I will see the movie, but I’m sure Hollywood won’t do it justice. I don’t live in an area of the country where people have maids and if they do, they are usually from a chain (Merry Maids) and have the same color of skin as their employers. There isn’t much diversity, cultural or otherwise, where I live, something that makes me sad as well. I didn’t think that the depictions in this book were something that was still going on. I thought it was something that was just historical fiction. I’m sad that there is some truth to it. And thank you for enlightening this naive soul.

    • deb sandlin says

      It still goes on,,, although w/out the hate. If you go to social events in someone’s home in Selma,,, you will see black maids and cooks in the kitchen,,, and black servers. Often times in Mobile, too.

  4. says

    Well said.
    My take on the book (which I LOVED) was not at all that I needed a “white voice” to be their savior, but more to help tell their stories. as a white woman, it helped me to see what jerks our culture has been over the centuries. I read it and felt ashamed, sad, and hurt because of so many things I’ve taken for granted and didn’t realize.

    I thought it was a great book and I’m dying to see the movie!

    • says

      I think it’s a sad realization that the stories HAD an impact BECAUSE they came from a white woman. I think there’s a lot to be learned here!

  5. says

    Very well said! I hadn’t heard about the controversy, but from what you’ve said, I agree with you completely. It’s difficult to put a portion of society that isn’t attractive under a microscope, but I think the charm of the book comes from the melding of races. I’m sad that people are finding reasons to diminish what makes the story worth celebrating.

  6. Rita Jansen says

    Great job Robin. I have read The Help twice and have seen the movie. Both are excellent. I plan to read the book again now that the characters have faces. I grew up in Greene County Alabama in the fifties and sixties. As I have told my friends “I lived The Help” from Mae Mobley’s point of view forward. Romelia raised me and then helped me with Jullie, she was my family. Happy and sad , that is what I feel about the movie.

    • says

      I agree, as far as the book goes. Can’t speak for the movie, yet. But I think it’s good to look back and see our mistakes, even if only through the eyes of fictional characters!

  7. says

    You are brave and I love it! I’ve read the book and saw the movie today. I may write my own blog about my experience at the movie theater, because it was strange. It is clear to me that we do not see ourselves as all the same underneath. I wish we did, but we do not.

    Kathryn Stockett grew up with her own maid, so as a white women, she did indeed need a white woman in her story. I loved the book and the movie.

  8. Alicia Bratton says

    Very well said, Robin! I’ve read the book and just saw the movie. From the time that I was a small child I can remember feeling ashamed, at times, of being white. What made me so special that I deserved certain status and opportunity that others didn’t- just because I was ” lucky” enough to be white. Well, I may get to see first hand how much the south has really progressed, as we are number one on the adoption waiting list for any race/ any gender. We are looking forward, with joy, to the prospect of a brown baby to love.

    • says

      Alicia I have several friends and family members who have adopted outside of their race, if you are looking for support or have questions, let me know and I’ll get you in touch with them! How exciting!!

  9. Zara says

    I think your argument is too simplistic. I am not really sure what your counterargument is to the fact that The Help basically tells a story of a white woman who comes-to-age through the memory of her maid and encourages black women to tell their stories. I am happy your town was positively effected by the filming of this movie. I am sure there is some truth to the novel and movie. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Help is just one more in a long line of Hollywood portrayals of the Civil Rights Era that completely minimizes the struggle of black individuals against a severely and terrifyingly oppressive regime of Jim Crow laws, KKK murders and attacks, and other kinds of both subversive and overt racism. I think Martha Southgate puts it well:

    ‎”More troubling is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help. The architects, visionaries, and laborers of the movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, even died beside them, but it was not their fight—and more important, it was not their idea.”

    http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20516492,00.html

    I understand where you are coming from, but I think you are relying too much on your own experiences to examine a nation-wide problem that is systemic. Also, I think your comment that African Americans’ still face racism ‘sometimes’ is too lax; the racial divides in this country even in 2011 are huge and if even if we leave out cases of overt racism, blacks still face systemic and institutional racism in shocking numbers.

    • says

      Hi Zara!
      I really appreciate your thoughts, especially that you disagreed with me without being hateful. Seriously!

      I agree with you. And my point was not to present a counterpoint to the idea that, “The Help basically tells a story of a white woman who comes-to-age through the memory of her maid and encourages black women to tell their stories.”

      My point was explain that to the THOUSANDS of people in the South, who think that “The Help” is just another feel good movie, that there are also THOUSANDS of people and probably more who were deeply hurt and offended by the story.

      Many of the arguments I’ve seen online have said, “That’s not real. People don’t talk like that.” And that is where I wanted to present my counter argument, because the story was much too relevant for the “Modern Day South” for my tastes.

      I apologize if I minimized racial oppression but I felt that sometimes would be a more accurate description than all the time.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  10. Nick says

    Wow. You are obviously from the south. This is not a story of racial equality and justice for prior wrongs to a minority; rather it is a description of a bigoted cultural that has been exposed, yet again. Your point that the movie could not be told by non-Africans is incorrect when you understand that the primary objective of the story is not about the under-class but about white bigotry. It was not about a white girl “saving” anyone. Look beyond yourself and see the bigger picture that shows the wrong-headed thinking of segregationist whites showing their prejudice. When you speak of looking into the mirror and seeing the ugly as well as the good you miss the point that the ugly is those people who believed in the class system and not the treatment itself of the under-class. In other words this was a story about you and your southern culture. Again, you missed this point because the culture is so engrained in you it is a difference that you not could see it.
    I did see the movie. The characters were wonderfully portrayed demonstrating the culture of the time. It was emotionally stirring and at the end I clapped aloud but not for the triumph of “The Help,” rather the exposure of wrong-mindedness of the culture of bigotry. Next time you write a review of a movie, see it first.

    • says

      Nick,
      My point was not to review the movie but to .explain to the THOUSANDS of people in the South, who think that the story of the “The Help,” which I read, is just another feel good movie, that there are also THOUSANDS of people and probably more who were deeply hurt and offended by the story. Trust me when I say that this is a shocking idea to people here.

      Many of the arguments I’ve seen online have said, “That’s not real. People don’t talk like that.” And that is where I wanted to present my counter argument, because the story was much too relevant for the “Modern Day South” for my tastes.

      I agree with you completely that this is a story about Southern culture. And one of the best things about it is “the exposure of wrong-mindedness of the culture of bigotry.”

      I don’t like the current state of things in Mississippi and my hope is that any discussion about this film, by those either for it or against it, will bring change.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  11. Mandie Trimble says

    First, let me ask: if you lose facebook “friends” over this blog post were they truly your friends?

    As a Southerner (who currently resides north of the Mason-Dixon Line), I know how difficult it can be to speak openly and honestly about the painful history of the South to fellow Southerners. Many of them wish to think of the South as a lovely, genteel place where mild-mannered ladies and gentlemen have social graces of which Queen of England would be proud. But let’s be real. That’s only a part of the South’s history, a very small part.

    I read “The Help” last year when a colleague of mine from Buffalo, NY lent it to me. (She wanted a Southerner’s perspective on it.) I loved the book very much, but it was also a painful read…and a painful reminder that bigotry and racism, whether we choose to admit it or not, still pervade the South (as well as the rest of the country).

    I loved book’s story so much I considered buying it for my step-mother for Christmas. But then I remembered a conversation we had while I was a college student, and I knew if I gave it to her she would be offended. I was taking a history class that required us to interview a family member who could recall the Civil Rights Movement. I chose my stepmother who grew up in Jackson, MS. I asked her about the race riots and school integration. However, she remembered a much different 1950s Mississippi…a childhood sans race riots, bus boycotts and “separate but equal.” And I was surprised when she seemed offended that I would bring it up or press her on it. In her mind it either did not exist or it was not “that bad.” It was the first time I realized some white Southerners choose to put on blinders. She once said something along the lines of “Mississippi always gets the bad rap when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement when there was more stuff going on in Alabama.” I guess it’s something about not wanting to admit the undeniable truth of history. I’m not saying my step-mother is a “bad” woman, quite the contrary. She’s a lovely woman who chooses the mild-mannered, genteel version of the South.

    I’m glad the book was written, and that people in the South are reading it. I just hope they get more out of it than just a “good read.” And I wish they did not feel the need to “hide” their reading it. That’s part of the problem. I’m also pleased to hear the movie generated some talk about racism in your town, but my prayer is that after the hubbub from the movie has ceased the talk and unity do not grow silent with it.

    People who are not from the South can be quick to criticize, Robin, but what they do not know is how much courage it took for you to write this blog. And I applaud you for it.

    • says

      Your comments gave me chills Mandie. Well said. And honestly if I lose FB friends over this… Eff em’. Classy right? I have plenty of friends here in Greenwood, black and white, who are working really hard to change things here. They were working before Hollywood showed up and are still going strong!

  12. Gena says

    I admire your courage of tackling this subject and the eloquence of your comments. I look forward to seeing the movie but not explaining this to my daughter when she comes of age. So much hurt in our history…

  13. Jeanne M. Swingenstein says

    Born and raised around the corner from the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery AL (yes, George Wallace), my memories of my rich childhood were made richer by our ‘Help’ Rosie and her husband Johnny whom I loved very much. I was Rosie’s last white chile. She first ‘raised’ my sister and then me and she was my rock when other dysfunction was going on. I’m now 65 and my memories are so clear. Rosie and Johnny had a bedroom in the basement of our house. They had to go outside and up the back steps to the bathroom built onto the back of the house; their bathroom. Johnny was a blacksmith in our garage and they took care of our family monkey, Cheetah. Rosie made a cowboy outfit including a holster and toy guns for Cheetah. She took me at 6 years old to her Eastern Star meetings and to Beulah Baptist church with her where I stood on the pew and hollared that they were drowning those folks up front when they were only baptizing them. My parents kept them in their place with such a bigoted attitude but very early I knew it was wrong and have never been bigoted in my life. I loved them so much and they knew it. Mama and Daddy would have parties and they would put me in the laps of the guests to be cute before sending Rosie to put me and my sister to bed. So I cried from the start of the movie to the end, feeling all the hurt the maids felt. I married a Pittsburgh Yankee but my best memories are at home in Montgomery. I LOVE THE MOVIE! I thought it was right on. Jeanne

  14. Natalie says

    How am I just now seeing this? Mandie and Jeanne both gave me chills! I grew up with no “Help” and I felt shame as I read the book and watched the movie. Shame, as in, “REALLY???Over the color of someone’s skin?” I, like you Robin, am thankful that my son does not realize that we are any different. I am thankful that his school is sprinkled with beautiful shades of everyone, and that he loves most all of them. (Except the ones that hit him, try to take his toy, etc…) I am also thankful that I was raised in a household that was taught to love everyone. I pray to God that through my actions my son will do the same.

    As always- your words are beautiful Robin!

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