Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Help may be historically inaccurate

Posted in:
Recently, the Association of Black Woman Historians issued a public statement to the fans of the book, The Help, and the movie based on it. They basically said that;
The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.
While I didn't read the book, I saw the movie a few weeks ago and came away very much interested in the subject and having picked some historical context from it. But bearing in mind that it was fiction, I wanted to continue the discussion with real people and I've also read a lot of articles which was how I came to hear of the ABWH's statement.

During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women's employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them.
One of the most powerful scenes in the movie for me was of one morning in the black community when they were on their way to work, almost all the women wore the uniform of maids, and the man seemed to be mainly casual laborers. One of the main black characters had lost her job because of a racist white boss, and had to pull her daughter out of school to work and make money. In the scene, she was putting her 13/14 years old daughter through the do's and don'ts of servitude, it was heart-breaking. On another note, the ABWH point out that;
Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.
In a discussion with Atala (I went to see the movie with a meetup group so he missed it), he remarked on this particular point and how easy it was for people to then say, "I'm not like that individual", thus discounting the ability of such a work to provoke deep soul searching and public discourse. The ABWH concludes;
In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.
While I accept The Help as fiction, there is still that power that writers have to influence their society, and maybe Kathryn Stockett should have been more cultural sensitive. That said, one big lesson I took from the movie was that more people should tell their stories. Nobody can write your history the way you can, and the author of The help has done her bit, the rest is left for us.

Have you read the book or seen the movie? What did you think?

PS, maybe one day I'll write about how the movie reminded me so much of the house-help culture in Nigeria.


  1. Insightful post, Myne. Haven't seen the movie or read the book. Yes, Nobody can write our history the way we can. There are so many African American history books out there covering the same era 'The Help' did. The only difference is that they will never get the same amount of exposure 'The help' has had and continues to have. Sadly the reason goes back to some of the same issues of this debate: power and privilege.

    Kathryn Stockett is a White woman. she writes about the experiences of Black people from HER point of view and its like wow! A Black person does the same thing and it would be a struggle to find a publisher, talkless of selling and promoting the book or the film.
    Sadly that's the world we live in!

    Thanks for depressing me today Myne;-) Like I already had so much to look forward to with the whistling wind, rain and cold. Lol. Off to write some poetry to get the angst out of my system. Bye!

  2. I haven't watched the movie or read the book.. blacks shouldnt let these oreigners tell our stories cos they'll jst distort it or us :(

  3. BTW Amy Mckie posted about this topic on her blog. Some good reference literature too.


  4. *Oops my "F" seems to be faulty :/

  5. I think it's somewhat of a Hollywood staple for a movie about the struggle of any oppressed group to be told through the efforts of a white protagonist. Whether it's about South Africa, or El salvador or Vietnam or wherever. It's not so much a narrative device as it is a business model.

    And books tend to follow a similar pattern. I don't particularly care what an affluent middle-class woman discovers about what life means, but there are a lot of peopel who do: mainly other affluent middle-class women. And by a happy 'coincidence' the people who by most books are...


  6. I can see a few people having problems with the author being white, but honestly, reading the book will help you understand why it wasn't a bad idea. I HAVE READ THE BOOK a while back and I was ecstatic when I heard the movie was coming out. I started reading the book before I realized the author was white. To tell the truth, once I found that out, flipped to the back and saw this pretty face of a writer, I was a bit apprehensive but I continued reading. Please go and grab a copy before placing judgements on it.

    A black writer couldn't have written the book because it wouldn't have been the same story. Reading the book would explain that further. The story is about helps in that worked for white households in the 50s and 60s. It not only shed light on the black helps, but also the white family whom they worked for. I love the way the writer actually allows the HELPS to tell their own stories. She is a brilliant writer! One of the best I have come across and it is even more applaudable to know she was turned down over 60 times before the book was accepted #dedication#
    The book is an amazing piece of work! I am reluctant to see the movie because it might spoil it for me. lol!

  7. I bet Hollywood made matters worse with their habit of stereotyping in movies.

    Its bad that the book misinforms...its worse that it had to have a movie version already.
    Fiction should be an appearance of reality not a distortion of it. Distortion makes it look more like propaganda!

  8. They should try as much as possible to get to the roots of any historical story they want to tell,getting close to locals is one very good way to achieve that.

  9. I havent seen the movie or read the book. But it might be true that some historical facts were omitted or altered to attract a larger audience, as is done with a lot of historical movies these days...

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. @ Mrs Newlywed
    If it is true that the book distorts history, I don't think it matters what a great writer Kathryn is.

    Distorting the history of segregation which in fact goes back to 400 years of slavery is a pretty big deal! I read a lot of African American literature of that era (more than twenty years ago) and it still has a profound effect on me today.

    There was a reason Ms Stockett was turned down 60 times. And I suspect that had nothing to do with her dedication. More to do with the fact that the book might be a hot potato of cultural and political insensivity.

    1. If it is true, right? I think it was a brilliant movie, each story told is taken from a vantage point....of the observer....same way kunta kintae was told with additions here and there by author alex haley.....
      Bottom line.....learn and enjoy...no big deal!

  12. argh. My book club insisted we read this book in January, but I haven't seen the movie. My husband (who also hates To Kill a Mockingbird) claims it's just another white man saves the day story. And maybe he's right. I tend to think ANYTHING that gets everyone talking and re-examining their behaviors and attitudes is a good thing. And I don't think The Help is as harmful as it's being made to seem.

    My summation was it was really a book for white women in America. Reason = I was never in the KKK, and would never DREAM of being that brutal to another human being I'm NOT like THAT!!!

    Hello, but have I ever sat idly by while another person in the group was casually racist...?

    Ding! Point for Stockett. ;p

    great post, Myne! And write that book~

  13. Oh, in case that wasn't clear--my husband hates this book... :o)

  14. Hi Adura, I'm sorry I cast a pall over your day. :) Thanks for your insightful comments too.

    @Kitkat, exactly. and not just AAs but anyone who has a story and can tell it.

    @Mood, so true. I think leaving it as a book may have been bearable but we all know the power of hollywood, and a big budget movie at that.

    @Newlywed, I agree with Adura that if the book is inaccurate, or culturally insensitive, the author's writing style or dedication should not be an excuse. I do appreciate that she put the story out there, and really there are some very important points in the book for us all.

  15. @Afronuts, I totally agree. Elaborate on life for your Art but never distort.

    @9jagreat, I heard the author went only with her own memories of their family help. It would def have helped to talk to more people.

    @Deola, I think that's what they did.

    @LTM, I've seen that narrative a lot in Hollywood but I chalk it down to the majority culture in America which is white so I don't mind. But when this offends one of the minority cultures, then I take note. I agree with you that there are several strands in the story of The Help that most of us can learn from. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  16. I came away from the movie actually having more sympathy for African-Americans than I did before. I could see the cruelty they were submitted to. I saw this movie three times and each time I saw it, the emotion tore at me, bringing me to tears. I saw this movie as a way for anyone, in whatever situation they find themselves, can overcome and not be stuck in the muck and mire they're in.

  17. In my opinion, this is hogwash and its black people not being able to get over race issues. This book was written two years ago and there was no controversy on it, all of a sudden the movie is out, its making money and they are complaining and talking about a fine white girl "emma stone" shouldn't be telling our story.

    The story if you read the book, is not about the white girl, its about the black women who make a point to tell their stories against all odds. And when u read the book, you understand better the scenes in the movie when some of the helps talk of loving their work and others hating their work.

    I could go on and on, but if you haven't read the book (the movie is trash and really destroys the book) its easy to believe what these African bla bla are saying. You need to put things in context and for one this work is fiction, u need no historical perspective to write a work of fiction.

  18. I haven't read the book or seen the movie but i know one thing until africans start writing their own stories, there will always be this stereotyped understanding of the african race.

  19. I saw the movie yesterday and I totally agree with LG that "this is just a case of blacks not being able to get over race issues" and the fact that it was written by a white woman also has to do with their blabbing... I really liked the movie but since we all know that the book is usually better than the movie, I'll try to get the book

  20. I haven't read the book but I saw the movie and it was great! It was very touching. I don't agree with what the ABWH's are insinuating. Like you said I believe everyone should write and share their own stories. No one can tell YOUR Story except for YOU alone. This movie to me was powerful and helped me not to take for granted this life that I am living. The author has a written a part of her story the way she saw it, we all should also do the same.

  21. I agree with your statement-'Nobody can write your history the way you can, and the author of The help has done her bit, the rest is left for us.' if they have a problem with it, then they should write their own story. I know we cant diminish or undermine what blacks went through and racism still exists even till today but i think the blacks play this card too often. People are being touched by this movie/book but I guess that doesn't matter to them.

    I personally look forward to watching the movie/reading the book as I've heard of the good reviews so far.

  22. First time of hearing about the book & movie, so i would reserve my comment and read what others have got to say.

  23. i read the book, haven't seen the movie... all i can say is twas a great read, i loved it and it got my emotions on fire. Not interested in the whole 'issues' raised. LG's comment is spot on.

    Let's just enjoy the story and discuss it in book clubs... everyone is allowed to create their own reality in works of fiction, if we want to see historical correct movies or books, then lets stick to roots and the hundred others out there.

  24. @LG, Iwalewa, Funmi, Stelzz, and FQ, Thanks for all the different view points, but we should bear in mind that it's not only black people complaining about the movie. Also, movies are far more reaching than books and I think that's why there has been more furore over it.

    @YNC, I honestly liked the movie for making me think, and I'll recommend it to anyone interested.

    @Tam, you're so right. I hope more and more people will have the courage to tell their own stories.

  25. I havent read the book or watched the movie so cant say much on it but a few people I know have done both and many preferred the book to the movie.
    P.S I noticed last week that you were reading "Far from home"...how was it? I'm interested bcoz its based in my country and was written by a lady I know.

  26. I couldn't agree more. That's what I came away with as well. We mus write our stories. It's in telling stories that memories are kept alive. It's in having stories told from various perspectives that we become aware of the diversity of Life.

  27. Funny enough, it was a review I saw on the movie and it was quite good. WI haven't seen the movie or book yet and I really hope to.

    You're right about us telling our own stories. Nothing lasts in history books than that.

  28. I have not seen the movie nor read the book. My mother read it and spoke of how it differed from her childhood memories.

  29. This is one of favorite books. I LOVED it, the voices in it, and though I didn't live through that era, I thought most of it 'felt' historically correct. Am DYING to see the movie. :) The scenes with the toilets in that one lady's yard and of course the chocolate pie alone should be worth the price of the ticket. :)

  30. People didn't say things like this concerning the historical distortion in 'Tears of the sun' so I think I dnt have anythn to worry about. Wil watch tha movie today. Insightful writup!

  31. I haven't read the book neither have I seen the movie...but will look for the movie soon

  32. Hi Tina, and welcome to my blog. I hope you enjoy the movie.

    @Tboy, that's a great thing to point out, lol...I remember watching the movie, and I was like WHAT?

    @Dayor, hope you enjoy it too.

  33. I am going to echo what Adura wrote in her first comment (Nobody can write our history the way we can). I recently read Chinua Achebe's HOME AND EXILE and after that I stopped seeing fiction as harmless works. It brought me to the realization that a lot of what I know of pre-colonial and colonial Igbo culture came from the works of John Munonye, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi et al. Although they were fictitious, I based the story of my people on what the books said. Fiction is a strong tool as it tells a story that one way or another shapes the way that one sees a people and their story.

    All that said, I am going to have to read THE HELP before I can give an opinion on this topic.

  34. Thank you Natural Nigerian, I totally agree with you. Fiction does have its impacts.

  35. I don't agree with everyone who's saying no one can write our history the way we can. Sometimes, you get a clearer perspective and understanding when you look at things from the outside. You are able to see things in a totally different way to those being affected directly.
    That said, I haven't read the book nor seen the movie so I can't really comment on how much justice or injustice was done.

  36. I don't agree with everyone who's saying no one can write our history the way we can. Sometimes, you get a clearer perspective and understanding when you look at things from the outside. You are able to see things in a totally different way from those being affected directly.
    That said, I haven't read the book nor seen the movie so I can't really comment on how much justice or injustice was done.

  37. What Deolascope said. I haven't read the book or watched the movie but i do agree that if a story is based on a real setting, the author had better get that setting right.

    Thank God for the past year oh. Looking forward to more unwrapping :D

    Muse Origins Features
    Muse Origins

  38. I have not read the book or seen the movie, but this makes for interesting discussion. Perhaps it is best to think of it as a book written by a white woman; her perspective is going to be significantly different than a work by, say, Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston. But I also don't like the idea of characters in the book inaccurately portrayed or the 1960s culture for black women (and men) glamorized.
    I am glad I read your post. If I choose to read The Help, it will definitely give me a different perspective. Thank you for that!

  39. Thank you MsTizzle and Adiya, I like the part about seeing things from a different perspective.

    @Susan, I'm glad you liked the discussion. I'd def recommend the book.

  40. Blessings.......Myne
    I haven't read or seen it yet. I will let you know what I think when or if I do.

    take care and stay blessed.
    have a maverlous weekend.

  41. I just heard about this movie from my gf this morning. After seeing your post I am definitely going to watch it.

    I don't have any issue with the race of one who wrote it really. No-one's experience should be more privileged than the other person's be you the helped or the helper, so long as lies are not told.

  42. I saw the movie, and I wouldn't fully agree that the sufferings of Black American women was trivialized. I have seen movies of and read about some of the gory events of that era, but I think the writer of the book chose a view that couldn't cover the whole picture.I don't think a single story can do that.


Click Post a Comment to share your thoughts, I'll love to hear from you. Thanks!

*Comments on old posts are moderated and may take sometime to be shown. That's just because I want to see them and respond to you if necessary.