For those of you who may not be aware, I am a huge fan of Kathryn Stockett's debut novel The Help. I discovered it back in 2009 when a dear friend of mine (Hey Liz!) suggested I read it. I'll be honest, without my friend's enthusiastic endorsement I may not have picked up this book on my own. Why? The Help was a story about black domestics living in the Jim Crow South as told by a white woman.
That little, but very important fact was enough to make me very skeptical about the contents of the book, namely how the black characters in it were portrayed. Would they be yet another Mammy caricature in which the black slave or maid was all-too-happy to serve - and be subservient to - her white master or employer? Think Gone With the Wind and virtually every book or film with black characters written by white authors and storytellers. Sadly, there IS a pattern.
In addition to the stereotyped portrayals, these stories often contain "white savior" themes in which the white hero or heroine saves the "colored" folk from themselves, their "savage" way of life or some other bad circumstance. Yep, I had my reservations. Luckily, the book did not have any of these typical pitfalls - a very pleasant surprise. (You can read more of my thoughts here).
So when I heard The Help was being made into a movie, I vowed to see it the weekend it opened. Well, family, The Help hit theatres Wednesday, August 10th and I saw it Saturday night at the popular Third Street Promenade here in Santa Monica, California. While I was excited to see the movie, my old reservations creeped back in. I worried that the movie would focus entirely on the white character Skeeter while simultaneously minimizing the primary black characters, Abileen and Minny, and the reality of their lives in the Jim Crow South. Without knowing it, I was holding my breath.
As the large theater filled to capacity, mostly with white faces and a few brown ones like mine sprinkled throughout, I felt my heart pound faster. I silently prayed, "Please don't let this movie reinforce stereotypes, dehumanize or minimize the black characters or play up the "white savior" theme." As the first ten minutes turned into the first half-hour and then the first hour and finally the second, I exhaled. Really exhaled. Quite simply, the movie was poetry, a beautiful tapestry of truth and inspiration. No one character was sacrificed for the other.
The movie remained true to the book and, above all, the maids' stories remained full and intact. I fell in love with Abileen and Minny (my favorite character) all over again. I cried and laughed and then cried and laughed some more. At the end of the movie, Abileen's character (portrayed by Viola Davis) said something that resonated with me. She said, "No one ever asked me what it felt like to be me."
As a black woman, I understood all too well what Abileen meant. The Help is a story about what it feels like to be Abileen....what it feels like to be Minny....and the countless women who look like them. I hope this film (and book) is one of many more like it. So long as the storyteller remains true to telling the stories of these women from THEIR perspective, I have no problem with the color of the storyteller.
Check out The Help trailer.
One More Thing:
Viola Davis deserves to be nominated for AND WIN an Oscar
for her performance in The Help. Spread the word if you agree.