Like millions of other women, I read The Help for a book group. I enjoyed the book and appreciated that it led to a spirited discussion of its strengths and weaknesses among the women in my group. But in the year and a half since I read the book, I didn’t really give The Help a second thought. And then the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s book, also called The Help, came out, and quickly racked up both impressive box office receipts and a slew of controversy.
While each critique is different, the main objections appear to present a sanitized, stereotyped view of race relations; that it glosses over a particularly turbulent and dangerous part of the Civil Rights movement; that both the book and movie focus on white experiences and, indeed, that the book was written by a white woman; and that the highest-profile, female-driven movie of the year only depicts black women as maids.
I’ve undoubtedly left out other accusations, but you get the idea: for a movie that’s just a little over two hours, it sure carries a heavy burden of expectations. In part, this can be explained by the fact that the film is based on a best-selling novel, and its casting and filming was pretty heavily covered in the press (well, the entertainment press, at least). But there’s also the fact that female ensemble movies are few and far between, particularly ones that have black women in lead roles. Reading all the criticisms of the film, it’s hard not to think that people are projecting their own hopes of what they want a movie about black women in the 1960s South to look like, and that it’s the inability to meet these expectations that’s driving the backlash. But to expect any one movie, particularly one made by a mainstream Hollywood studio, to be all things to all people is unrealistic.
I’ve been particularly struck by the assertion that the action that the film revolves around – Skeeter, a young, wealthy white woman, collects the stories of black maids for a book – somehow isn’t big enough, to really take a stand against the racism and violence of the time and place (the film and book are set in Jackson, Mississippi). As Jennifer Williams writes, “the testimonies of the maids don’t improve their conditions or challenge race relations in Mississippi.” And it’s true that once Skeeter’s book is published, the maids aren’t suddenly able to quit their jobs or tell off their racist employers or receive better wages. But it seems limiting to say that if an act of courage doesn’t result in huge, tangible results, then it doesn’t matter. It’s clear that each woman who told her story did so at great risk to herself and her family, and yet she spoke out anyway. It can be argued that every social movement starts like this: individuals summoning their courage to challenge the accepted order however they can.
Perhaps along the same lines, the movie has also drawn complaints that it makes America’s racial struggles seem far away, a relic of the distant past. But while I was watching the film, I was struck by how recent the events really were. My mother’s family is from Birmingham; my mother was about the same age as Skeeter and her friends in 1963. (Indeed, my mother’s reason for not reading the book was, “I lived it.”) It was powerful to have such a vivid reminder that such virulent racism was alive and well barely over a generation ago, and it made me marvel at just how recently such behavior was an accepted way of life in much of this country – and consider not just how far society has come, but how much further we still have to go.
Obviously, the varied reactions to The Help have proved that other people have different opinions, and I think it’s a reflection of how personal the subject matter is that the movie has caused such diverse responses. But in my opinion, it’s okay to make a movie about race that focuses on the explicitly personal, as opposed to the explicitly political – and to make a movie where the gains are only incremental, because that’s real life.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.