Civil Rights Lite: Or How Fiction and Fact Become One

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

I know, I know, everyone loved the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  It’s been on the NYT’s Best Seller’s List for combined print and e-book fiction for 24 weeks, and is #1.  Now the book is a movie.  Robin Roberts of Good Morning America recently interviewed the four lead characters in the film – Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard – about their roles in this crazy, funny, dramatic movie about maids in the south during the Civil Rights Movement.  Really?  The movie from Dreamworks Pictures has received massive amounts of publicity.  With the pre-release hoopla including the trailer, interviews and the strategically placed articles stoking the flames of a box office blockbuster in the making, folks are going to love the movie as well.  They don’t have any choice because that’s how the marketing machine works, priming the film for the Academy Awards and for the across platform tie-ins, like The Help Event featuring a product line inspired by the film and sold on the Home Shopping Network, HSN.

The Help Film Poster

For the record, I’m delighted that African American actors – Davis, Spencer, Cicely Tyson and the other black folks in the film got some work in Hollyweird, and got paid.  That’s a beautiful thing.  My concern is the trivialization of a period of painful transition in African American history.  The Civil Rights Movement was no joke; folks died, bled, and were maimed and jailed in pursuit of equality. A fictional account about African American domestics set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s written by a white author who uses dialect and vernacular for the black maids, while creating inauthentic dialogue devoid of southern ticks for her white characters, does not capture the essence of the struggle.

The Help is not the first novel about African Americans by a white author adapted to film that has stirred controversy.  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin although written to promote an anti-slavery message ended up solidifying black stereotypes.  Stowe, a white abolitionist, populated her bestselling 1852 novel with pickaninnies (the ragamuffin, uneducated, ill-kempt children of slaves), mammies (oversized, dark skinned females, desexualized caretakers of white children) and Uncle Toms (obedient, docile and malleable man servants who put the slave master and mistress first) whose negative impact reverberates today in popular culture.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852

As a historian, I am very disturbed by authors playing fast and loose with the serious business of history. Libraries and archives are filled with erroneous, lopsided, fictionalized accounts of the African American narrative.  Some of these accounts are written by self-serving authors who are more interested in preserving their legacy and perspective than researching and verifying facts to produce a complete and accurate history.

The Help, albeit fiction, is an illustrative example of one aspect of the race problem in America.  Blacks get it, but whites don’t.  Because we have cleaned their houses, raised their kids and prepared their meals, we have been privy to their private conversations and know exactly what they think about black people.  They, on the other hand, are largely ignorant of African Americans – who we are, what we are capable of and how we live our lives.

Beecher Stowe’s stereotypes gain a new 21st century life in Stockett’s The Help.  Aibileen is the large, loving caregiver to the white Leefolt children, while Minny is the defiant, rebellious non-conforming troublemaker who works for the social outcast Celia Foote and her husband.  Skeeter, the white woman who gets a book contract based on the maids’ stories, is portrayed as the savior of sorts of the abused black maids.  She is introduced as someone interested in changing the segregationist practices of her community, but Skeeter’s real ambition is to go to New York and get a job in publishing.

The other side of the story of the powerful and the powerless is the abuse.  Fast forward to New York City, 2011, where the media has dubbed a recent news story, the DSK Affair, in which a West African maid who worked at a midtown Manhattan hotel accused a European banker of rape.  The maid, Nafissatou Diallo, and the former head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, are at the center of a battle being waged by their lawyers of “he said, she said.”  DSK was arrested on his way out of the country on an international flight after Diallo reported that she was accosted as she went about her maid’s duties. The coverage has gone viral. Charges against the powerful French economist and lawyer were on the brink of dismissal after a smear campaign was waged in the press against the maid and her credibility.  But the tide seems to be turning since Nafissatou Diallo shed the cloak of anonymity and has decided, with her lawyers and supporters, to go public and tell her side of the story.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Nafissatou Diallo Face Off

In an ironic twist, the other story making the media rounds involves a six-page essay found among the personal items of Rosa Parks being auctioned off by Guernsey’s, a New York-based company that handles the archives of celebrities and historical figures.  The essay, which some friends and associates of Parks are calling a fictional account written by her but meant to remain private, details an encounter that Rosa had with her white, male employer.  Working as a housekeeper for a neighbor in 1931, Parks describes a near-rape experience. Again, this account exemplifies the caste and class struggle of a young black woman who bravely rejects the advances of her white employer.

Rosa Parks on the Bus

The alleged abuse at the center of the DSK Affair and the discovery of Rosa Parks’ essay are certainly at the far end of the power spectrum, but are part of the same continuum experienced by domestic workers like the maids in The Help.  Encounters between domestic workers and their employers or guests in a hotel can be a dicey proposition.  What Diallo and Parks experienced is an important counterpoint to the fictional storyline of The Help and those experiences are a reminder that real life, not reel life, inspires movements.

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6 Responses to Civil Rights Lite: Or How Fiction and Fact Become One

  1. Judith says:

    Wonderful article! There is such clarity and “reminding” present. It is so important for all of us to recognize “truth” as it is separate from fiction…which is for most people more palatable.
    Thank you Linda

  2. I agree with you that fiction goes down smoother, but it is key for all of us to be educated about the facts. So many people are truly ignorant of history and often spout misinformation. Thank you so much for your comments.

  3. kazuko says:

    Since there was so much coverage of “The Help” 2 weeks ago, I recently decided to read the book. I prefer to read the book prior to any hollywood movie (which tends to ruin a good book). I have only gotten through ¼ of the book so far, so can’t really make any comment on the book yet. However, in the last 3 days, I have heard on WNYC and various public radio stations, with similar views on the movie. However, Linda Tarrant Reid’s article goes deeper and is more expansive. The movie has created conversation and I believe writers, historians, film artists, and all of us who lived through these times/experiences should continue this conversation. Hopefully it will lead us (together) to a new sense of humanity. These divisions are deep and wide. Dialogue and effort to create an education in the dignity of life is necessary and we must share this w/ our youth. Our shared history shines the light on great men and women. If we discard or ignore our history, we are doomed to repeat misguided cruelities… which may end up in a Hollywood movie… which some people may believe is their history~…Let’s seize this opportunity and this blog as one way to unite towards a new humanity of great value!

    • Beautifully said, Kazuko. Your observations regarding our shared history so eloquently crafted – “If we discard or ignore our history, we are doomed to repeat misguided cruelties…which may end up in a Hollywood movie” – are words for us to live by. No culture escapes reinterpretation by the Hollywood machine. We must continue to be vigilant and speak truth to power whenever our cultures are misrepresented. Thank you.

  4. irene pastarnack says:

    i didn’t like the book and i won’t see the movie but i was very interested in what you wrote. you are terrific and a very good writer. see you soon – irene

  5. Irene, thank you so much for your comments. This platform is very important to me and enables us to engage in a conversation about a variety of topics. The Help has turned out to be quite controversial and I’m glad because we do not need to blindly fall in line and contribute to the marketing/profit machine that will forever churn out this story, especially when it misrepresents a history of a people.

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