29 August 2011

Helping 'The Help'

In her review of The Help, the popular book about a young woman who writes the story of life as seen by black maids, Martha Southgate describes the problem with continuing to tell narratives of persons with privilege being the agents of change. This section towards the end can be quickly edited to discuss how the global South is portrayed.
Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation. What's more, to imply that what the maids Aibileen and Minny are working against is simply a refusal on everyone's part to believe that ''we're all the same underneath'' is to simplify the horrors of Jim Crow to a truly damaging degree.

This isn't the first time the civil rights movement has been framed this way fictionally, especially on film. Most Hollywood civil rights movies feature white characters in central, sometimes nearly solo, roles. My favorite (not!) is Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning, which gives us two white FBI agents as heroes of the movement. FBI agents! Given that J. Edgar Hoover did everything short of shoot Martin Luther King Jr. himself in order to damage or discredit the movement, that goes from troubling to appalling.

Why is it ever thus? Suffice it to say that these stories are more likely to get the green light and to have more popular appeal (and often acclaim) if they have white characters up front. That's a shame. The continued impulse to reduce the black women and men of the civil rights movement to bit players in the most extraordinary step toward justice that this nation has ever known is infuriating, to say the least. Minny and Aibileen are heroines, but they didn't need Skeeter to guide them to the light. They fought their way out of the darkness on their own — and they brought the nation with them.
I have not read the book, so I will refrain from any additional commentary and allow those who have read it to include their thoughts. Now that it is a major Hollywood film, the story will not reach an even larger audience than the bestseller did.