‘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.)