'The Help' Draws Audiences, And Ire

Read the Association of Black Women Historians' response to The Help, and a list of recommended reading.

The film adaptation of the novel The Help has been critiqued for what some say is an inaccurate depiction of the life of black domestic servants in the civil rights era. Ida E. Jones of the Association of Black Women Historians weighs in on the film and book.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host: The novel "The Help" has been on the bestseller list almost every week since its release in 2009. The wildly popular book has now become an equally popular movie. Written by Kathryn Stockett, a 42-year-old white woman, "The Help" is the story of African-American maids working in white households during the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. When a young white woman wants to write their story, she finds resistance at first. And then Minny, one of the maids, decides that she'll help despite the dangers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HELP")

VIOLA DAVIS: (as Aibileen Clark) You is kind. You is smart. You is important.

ELEANOR HENRY: (as Mae Mobley) You is smart. You is kind. You is important.

DAVIS: (as Aibileen Clark) You is smart. You is kind. You is important. Oh, that's so good.

ROBERTS: That is a clip from the new movie of the book "The Help." Both the film and the book have met with controversy, from criticism that a white woman doesn't have the right to tell the story of black maids in the racist South, to complaints that the film portrays a violent era through rose-colored glasses.

If you read the book or saw the movie, what did you think of the story's portrayal of the maids and of the South in the 1960s? We sure want to hear from those of you who may have had experience with that time period. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ida E. Jones is the national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, which released an open statement criticizing "The Help." If you want to read that statement, you can find it on our website at npr.org. Ida Jones is with us today here in Studio 3A. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Dr. IDA E. JONES: Well, thank you so very much.

ROBERTS: So you say in a statement that the movie distorts, ignores and trivializes the experience of black domestic workers. How exactly?

JONES: Well - and to address the situation, you need to look at the book itself, as story is on three levels. It has been marketed as a story about African-American domestics. The core of the story is actually a coming-of-age in a proto-feminist young white woman. And then, thirdly, there's an overarching feminist move, because very few men at all are in the film and given any voice.

So there's really three stories going here. And marketing it to African-American women who are, at some level, looking for public images of themselves to digest in the media - be it the silver screen or books or what have you - that was done on a slightly unsympathetic way. They were not allowed to speak for themselves. There was no real voice of the women speaking for themselves. They were being marionetted and spoken for. So therein lies a level of distortion with regards to the actual lived experience of African-American domestic women.

ROBERTS: And do you think that the author's perspective is incorrect because she's white, because she's too young to have lived through it? Why do you think she gets it wrong?

JONES: I don't think she gets it wrong. I would just simply say that she needs to package it - maybe she didn't have the right to do so - package it as a nostalgic reminiscence. I've read all of the - some of the buzz, I can't say all of it - millions of hits on Google. But I've read some of the statements in which her earlier interviews in 2009 and early 2010, really talk about an apocryphal story, where she's telling part-biography, she's telling part-romantic notion, she's telling part-history as she has heard it from her ancestors. So there's no wrongness in her telling of her story. Simply, it should have been packaged in that fashion and not marketed and/or packaged as these black women looking for a vehicle to liberate themselves with no agency, until a white liberal woman comes and does such for them.

ROBERTS: You call it nostalgic, but it's pretty clear sort of where the good guys and bad guys are in this story.

JONES: Which is what we tend to do when we romanticize our past. I know a lot of oral historians tend to, at times, when we reminisce. If I was to ask you about elementary school, how you might have been the greatest person in kickball, or you might have been the prom queen. Now that might not have been true, but the way you choose to remember your past tends to be a little more glorified than the actual lived experience. So I believe, for the most part, that there's a historical period. There's an actual town. So there is some reality to this. And simply her nostalgic reverie is her view and her eyes on that time period, not the multiple eyes of other individuals and voices.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jackie in Oklahoma, City. Jackie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JACKIE: I just wanted to comment that I did see the movie. I have not read the book yet. I want to. I did not grow up in the South, but I was very aware through high school teachers what was going on then. And when I saw it, I did not view it as an idyllic time. It brought back to me the trauma that I remember people experiencing at that time and what I saw on TV. I don't know that - I don't really think it whitewashed what happened.

I think that this author was merely showing a small segment of society where the women and the interaction they had with the - their white bosses and the effect it had on their families, themselves and their children. I do think that there was - having been familiar with what had happened at the time, I think that there were a lot undercurrents of the real threats that went on at that time. They may be missed by those who don't have a knowledge of that era. I think this will be a wonderful actually, a wonderful movie after a civil rights module, learning module, to have for a group of kids to watch maybe and then to be commenting on it.

But I think that it had - I think what went on in it showed the devastating effect that happened to the women of that time, the maids at that time. And they really were helpless. They had absolutely no control over their lives. You saw the woman that got arrested because someone had a grudge against her and accused her of stealing something. Well, no. She really did. That's right. The other one was the one that they had threatened. But I thought it was outstanding.

ROBERTS: Jackie, thanks for your call. Ida Jones?

JONES: Well, in her statement, clearly, she's very balanced, and I do appreciate her comment. When you say that the domestics had no level of agency, that's not true. We list, at the bottom of our statement, several books that are academic as well as fictional works that look at the African-American agency, which has the capacity to negotiate your own space. I believe Minny, out of the characters, because of her, quote, "sassy tone," has to move from employment to employment in the film and in the book.

But even outside of being outspoken, African-American women as displayed in "Freedom Bags," the documentary of black domestics in the Philadelphia-Washington, D.C., area, talk about the physical threat, the financial threat and all kinds of other reality that impact their lives and their decisions. Yet and still, you're not going to stay and be abused or subjected to abuse. You're going to vote with your feet in some regard. Now, I knew that Ms. Stockett mentioned in one interview that the South is one big town.

And I'm not from the South either, but I have visited various parts and it is very intimate and very connected between the families that can go back to the Civil War and still live on plots of land that have that history. So this becomes the ugly bugaboo and how do you address this because of the forced intimacy as well as a kind of different perceptions on what reality was and is.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Lisa in Oakland. Lisa, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LISA: Hi there. I'm a black woman who spent my summers down in the Jim Crow South, went back in the '60s. So I didn't live there, but I experienced enough of the segregated beaches and everything else to leave a real nasty taste in my mouth. My grandmother was a live-in seamstress. She wasn't a maid. She did all the sewing for a white family. And some of her stories were mirrored in the movie. I loved this movie. I walked to the theater, and when I walked home, I was grinning from ear to ear. It was so uplifting to finally hear these stories. It doesn't matter from whose voice they came.

The fact that the stories were told, that we got to see that these women, despite everything, they kept their dignity, they kept their families intact, they did what they had to do, was inspiring to me. And what was most interesting, though, as I was leaving the theater, all the white women were crying, and all the black women were smiling, uplifted. I have never seen a movie that cut like that. The experiences were so markedly different as those reactions as I saw to "The Help." It blew me away.

I couldn't understand what they're crying about. I'm thinking, what did I miss? In fact, I went on my Facebook page. I said, I'm not trying to stir anything, but did we see the same movie? And my white Facebook friends basically expressed feeling of extreme guilt. And we're - the black women were like, hey, we survived this. We can survive anything. That's my comment.

ROBERTS: Lisa, thank you for your call. Ida, what's your reaction to Lisa?

JONES: I think her take on it is very clear, that it is very polarizing for those individuals who like it because it is cinematography. It is art. And so on that level we acknowledge the art. We don't tell people not to see the film. We, as historians, African-American women historians or African historians, you know, we're concerned about the context of it, the historical context of the lives of African-American domestic women. My grandmother did this work. My great grand-aunt did these work.

And I'm sure if you find any African-American, they would have some relative possibly who's done this work. So the idea is not to simply say that we're pooh-poohing it because this is being told. This has been told. We have books on this. We have articles. We have oral histories. It hasn't made it to this level yet. And African-American women have been writing about this. And they they've never made this level of splash. So therein lies another, once again, market issue of how stories are marketed and packaged and sold.

So it comes down to the dollar. It's not to negate Stockett's success. Congratulations to her. But the balance in the marketplace, in the publishing industry, as well as the media, how do we get our stories told from our perspective? Not to negate or silence hers, but on par.

ROBERTS: And there's a point to be made that people have read "The Help" or seen the movie that might not have been exposed to this time period or this racial dynamic in other contexts that might not be reading academic texts, that might not, you know, be reading some of the authors that you recommend. And so, is that, in the absence of other information, isn't it better to have something rather than nothing?

JONES: It's a start, and I think that's definitely where we as educators would concern ourselves with. Once you have something there to talk about, now we can open up the conversation. I think that's what our statement pretty much was concerned with. We put at the end that we are not trying to bash the black actresses. Clearly, there's been a lot of Oscar buzz. They are actresses. They are extraordinary. I mean Sissy Spacek, you know, Cicely Tyson, you have prominent names, as well as Viola Davis, the new rising star, and she's dynamic.

So we don't seek any need to diminish what they're doing. We are just simply concerned with the historical sensitivity. In the scene where Medgar Evers is now announced as being murdered, that scene (unintelligible) a "Chicken Little" scene, people just running around, frantic and crazy, with no understanding of who Medgar Evers was in regards to the NAACP field office in Mississippi, nor the civil rights movement in Mississippi. So it becomes a situation in which how do you fit that in. And clearly, you can't fit everything in because you only have so much time, such as we do this afternoon.

ROBERTS: You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We have email from Francine(ph) in Calistoga, who says: I was involved in desegregation work during the '60s in Maryland. My book club selected the book, but I couldn't get past the first 20 pages. It was such a distorted and racist depiction. One look - needs look no further than the fact that the African-American women's speech was portrayed as ethnic, different or demeaned by using phonic misspelling, where the white women Southern accents were written as correct English with dictionary spellings. This is a point you bring up in the statement.

JONES: Yes. We know that there are regional dialects, being a New Englander and I'm sure from Boston - my family that are listening in Boston and others - every region has an accent, so we're not pooh-poohing that either. But the way in which African-American speech is portrayed and we've received a plethora of emails from people telling us its accurate diction, its inaccurate diction. We have a problem with the way in which it was not authentic. And that - I know that people who do film(ph) , they actually have in theater dramaturge, and they actually explain different elements of culture, and that needs to have been expressed. And it was an inauthentic voice. Had we had more authentic voice, we would have thought it a little more balanced.

ROBERTS: This is Toni(ph) in Cincinnati on the line. Toni, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TONI: Hi. I just wanted to say that I am a 41-year-old African-American woman. And I read the book and I loved it. I think the book was a great book. And my grandmother was a maid for many years down South. And the stories she told me mirror the stories that were similar to some of the stories in the book. I think the big discrepancy is, I think that - and I can say this as a black person. I think that sometimes we, as people, we feel that white people telling our story just can't simply relate. And I know. I used to be one of those black people. But I feel, through education, I feel differently.

I feel that there are so many white people out there that educate themselves, that they study and they study black history and they can relate to us. So I don't feel that this white woman writing this book, I really feel that she was dead-on. The book was a great. I haven't seen the movie. I will love to see the movie, but I have to give credit to the author. The stories were dead-on. And I just really enjoyed the book.

ROBERTS: Toni, thanks for your call. I think she's touching at this question of who gets to tell your story.

JONES: It's art, once again. And I'm learning about art. And so as a result, once it's put out there by the artist, it can be digested or rejected by the public. So that's not the question in answer. In our actual suggested readings, we have Susan Straight, who's another white author, who writes in African-American dialect. And she's written over seven books. And when she first came out, people didn't know who she was and thought she was black because it was such articulation in her characters. And we've mentioned a book in here, "A Million Nightingales."

So we know that white authors can write black stories, such as black authors, Frank Yerby writing white characters and white stories. So it's not about black and white, that's just so trite. Our concern is that the contextualization of this time period be understood in that we actually have forum and discussion to publicly agree to disagree.

ROBERTS: And had the, you know, blurb on the back of the book been - this is the story of Skeeter Phelan, finding her way in the world, you know, and finding out what she wanted to do when she grew up, would that have solved the issue, do you think? Was it more than it was presented as, you know, the white vehicle for the courage of the black women to tell their story?

JONES: See, that's part of what I think is going on because there's an overarching feminist tone(ph) me here. And a lot of men have had problem with how men are represented in this book. And they're not simply coming out against it because it's anti-man. This is her story, once again, her art to say what she would like. However, it is not balanced in that regards. Maybe had they market it that way, as a young girl protofeminist, you know, Deep South early 1960s coming out and trying to be different, then fine. And then kind of contextualize her life around these women, fine. But to market it as a black woman story, it's problematic.

ROBERTS: I think we can squeeze in one more call here. This is Ben in San Francisco. Ben, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BEN: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Just a couple of things. First of all, I've seen the film several times now. I love it. And when I go and see movies, I look to be moved. (Technical difficulties) And while the movie didn't necessarily challenge me, I found it to be incredibly moving. And while I understand what your guest is saying about the importance of context in the film, one of the things that surprises me about reading from the critics who've had negative reviews to write is how little of the actual film they're talking about and how much of the actual context or kind of ancillary, you know, items that really don't have much to do with the film seem to be.

I mean, for instance, you know, one writer that I read said, you know, she laughed in the movie. She cried in the movie, but she's still gave it a negative review. And I'm thinking, well, isn't those exactly what movies are designed to do?

I just wanted to make another point - is I'm a little bit confused about the objection with dialect because, you know, while I don't have, you know, an incredible breadth of experience on various Southern dialect, I mean, my family did employ, you know, a couple of housekeepers who happened to be black and who happened to be originally from the South. And I remember these housekeepers that I grew up with speaking in exactly the same dialect that the, you know, the leading characters, Viola Davis, and Minnie's character did in the film. And so I just wanted to put that there and see what your guest had to say about that.

ROBERTS: Well, actually, Ben, you get the last word because we are out of time. I would say that the list of books that you do recommend, both in fiction and non-fiction, we will put up on our website, npr.org. It is also on your website, on the Association of Black Women Historians. Ida Jones joined us here in 3A. She's the national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, an assistant curator at Howard University. She's the author of the recently released "The Heart of the Race Problem: The Life of Kelly Miller."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.