Narrated by three women, it tells the story of a young white woman who interviews and writes the story of two black women who serve white families in the 1960s American South. (Warning: spoiler alert!) The white woman receives a job for her article. The black women receive neither bylines on the story, nor jobs. In fact, one is fired.
Now that it has been made into a movie, with Oscar buzz already swirling around the lead actresses, “The Help” is rekindling the debate over story appropriation.
Much of the criticism stems from “a white woman telling — and making money from — black stories,” Washington Post reporter Lonnae O’Neal Parker wrote last year. in a profile of the book’s author, Kathryn Stockett.
Further adding to the divisive conversation around the book, Ablene Cooper, a maid for Stockett’s brother, filed a lawsuit against Stockett, saying one of the main characters in the book — Aibileen Clark — is an unauthorized appropriation of her name and image. She said the book has been emotionally distressing to her.
On Tuesday, a judge dismissed the case because a one-year statute of limitations elapsed between the time when Stockett gave Cooper a copy of the book and when the lawsuit was filed. However, the suit still targeted the exact thing that makes people uncomfortable with the book and movie. It accuses a white woman of profiting from a black woman’s story.
Stockett spent much of her promotional tour defending her right to write the story. “I don't think I got it right by any means,” she said in The Post article. “I wish I could change little nuances.”
However, a second complaint has risen in the newest round of debate. Not whether Sockett has the right to tell the story, but whether the story glosses over too much of the harsh history of life as black woman in the American South.
“‘The Help’ distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers,” a statement from the Association of Black Women Historians says. “We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.”
For actor Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk on “The Wire,” the movie brought out a personal piece of history. His mother told him that she had once been “the help” during her college years, helping to raise white children as a black nanny.
Pierce applauded the acting and the filmmaking, but felt the movie presented itself as history when it was really telling only a “Jim Crow lite” version of events. On Tuesday, he took to Twitter to lodge his complaints:
With the “The Help” still the No. 2 movie in the country, the debate will likely not abate any time soon. However, the Association of Black Women Historians has suggestions for further reading to get a better historical perspective about the time period in which “The Help” is set. I can recommend “The Street.” I look forward to trying a few more:
“Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic’s Life,” Alice Childress
“The Book of the Night Women,” by Marlon James
“Blanche on the Lam,” by Barbara Neeley
“The Street,” by Ann Petry
“A Million Nightingales,” by Susan Straight