"The Help" - Controversy and Differing Views - Four African American Perspectives (long)
1. `The Help' surprises with dignified portrayal of black
maids (Mary Mitchell in the Chicago Sun-Times)
2. Kathryn Stockett Is Not My Sister and I Am Not Her Help
(Duchess Harris in The Feminist Wire)
3. Black-and-White Struggle With a Rosy Glow (Nelson George
in the New York Times)
4. Coming to Terms with 'The Help' (Leonard Pitts Jr.,
Tribune Media Services,)
`The Help' surprises with dignified portrayal of black maids
by Mary Mitchell
August 12, 2011 4:50PM - Updated: August 14, 2011 2:22AM
For obvious reasons, I had expected to dislike "The Help."
Kathryn Stockett is a white woman and her writing a book
about black women having to "Yes ma'am," and "No ma'am"
their lives away didn't sit well with me.
What gives her the right to tell this story in the first
To make matters worse, Stockett is profiting off the painful
plight of black women who lived and died in a racist world.
But after watching the film version of "The Help," which
opened in movie theaters this week, I forgot all about the
hand that penned this work.
Thanks to the insightful direction of Tate Taylor, and the
acting of Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark, and Octavia Spencer
as Minny Jackson, I walked out of the theater with a greater
appreciation for the black women who bore this burden.
Because of Davis' and Spencer's emotional performances, "The
Help" became more than a movie about a white woman's (Emma
Stone as Skeeter Phelan) struggle to find her place in the
world, and white redemption.
Davis' portrayal of a nanny captured the strong faith that
helped black women endure the indignity of Jim Crow. Spencer
absolutely soared as the no-nonsense Minny, who - despite
her hard edges - has a heart of gold.
Both of these actresses are immensely talented. It is ironic
that they will likely pick up major awards for playing black
For the most part, "The Help," didn't tell black people
Most from my generation have already heard horror stories
about what it was like to work in white folks' houses.
But how many white people can really say they know how black
people felt about the Jim Crow era?
But I disagree that the script needed a harder edge, as if
the omission of a rape scene or acts of brutality trivialize
The image of an elderly Constantine (played by Cicely Tyson)
trying to serve up peas during lunch as the elderly members
of the Daughters of the American Revolution looked down on
her with disgust spoke volumes.
I had to fight back the tears.
Two seats away, an elderly white woman was doing the same.
Others have dismissed "The Help" as a "heartwarming" fable,
and some bloggers are urging blacks to boycott this film.
That would be unfortunate.
Any movie about the racist South that ends with the black
heroine walking off to a brighter future, instead of with a
lynching or assassination, is worth the admission and the
$5.50 bag of popcorn.
Also, I don't think I've ever considered the complex
relationships that must have developed between the white
families and the black women who raised white children,
cleaned white houses and kept white secrets.
For instance, it was Minny to whom Celia Foote (played by
Jessica Chastain) turned to for support when she had a
miscarriage. While Skeeter obviously has compassion for the
black maids, Celia, whom the other women considered white
trash, treated Minny as her equal.
All of these women, black and white, were chained under
circumstances that revealed what was inside their hearts.
Some were cowards. Some had courage.
Taylor could have ruined this movie by focusing too much on
the white women and not enough on the black maids.
Like most issues involving race, debates about "The Help"
have blown up the Internet. I hope you join the conversation
by seeing this movie for yourself.
After seeing "The Help," I can look at those old black-and-
white movies with the walk-ons of black women dressed in
starched uniforms and white stockings and see more than a
I'm grateful that the director of this film made sure of
[Mary A. Mitchell is an editorial board member and columnist
for the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a recipient of numerous
journalism awards, including the prestigious Award of
Excellence from the National Association of Black
Journalists; the Studs Terkel Award from the Community Media
Workshop; the Peter Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headliner
Club; the Phenomenal Woman Award-Media from the Expo for
Today's Black Woman; and the Humanitarian Award from the 100
Black Men of Chicago. In 2004, Crain's Chicago Business
honored Mitchell as one of the 100 Most Influential Women in
Mitchell earned a B.A. in Journalism at Columbia College
Chicago. She joined the Chicago Sun-Times as an education
writer in 1991, and has covered City Hall and the U.S.
Community violence, sexual abuse of minors, the HIV/AIDS
epidemic in African-American neighborhoods, and racial
attitudes in Chicago have inspired Mitchell to tackle these
controversial subjects even when community leaders are
Most recently, Mitchell wrote a series of columns that
challenged the questionable practices of Utah adoption
agencies. Those columns were credited with leading to the
return of an African-American baby to her birth mother.
Additionally, Illinois legislators strengthened the state's
adoption laws to better protect birth mothers and their
children from adoption fraud.
Mitchell has been called "courageous" and "compassionate" by
readers who trust her to give them a voice on issues ranging
from police misconduct to the tragedy of Black-on-Black
She is also an advocate for women.
As a news reporter, Mitchell exposed the sexual abuse of
women in Illinois prisons. Those articles prompted the
Illinois General Assembly to strengthen laws prohibiting
prison guards from engaging in sex with inmates.
Today, Mitchell writes about a variety of topics, but her
work often rallies African-American readers to empower their
communities by promoting education and by protecting the
most vulnerable members of our society-our children and our
Kathryn Stockett Is Not My Sister and I Am Not Her Help
By Duchess Harris, PhD, JD.,
The Feminist Wire
August 12, 2011
I did not attend Wednesday's movie release of "The Help"
from DreamWorks Pictures, based on the New York Times best-
selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Why, you ask? Because I
read the book.
Last week New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni saw an
advance screening of the movie and referred to it as "...a
story of female grit and solidarity - of strength through
sisterhood." He wrote, "The book's author, Kathryn
Stockett, told me that she felt that most civil rights
literature had taken a male perspective, leaving `territory
that hadn't been covered much.'" What neither Bruni nor
Stockett acknowledge is that the real territory remaining
uncovered is civil rights literature written by the Black
women who experienced it.
I recently read The Help with an open mind, despite some of
the criticism it has received. I assumed the book would be
racially problematic, because for me, most things are. The
novel opens on the fourth Wednesday in August 1962, at the
bridge club meeting in the modest home of 23-year old,
social climbing Miss Leefolt. The plot unfolds when her
"friend" and the novel's antagonist, Miss Hilly, the
President of the Jackson, Mississippi Junior League,
announces that she will support legislation for a "Home Help
Sanitation Initiative," a bill that requires every white
home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. (10)
We learn early on that Miss Skeeter, the only bridge club
lady with a college degree and no husband, opposes the idea.
By page 12, she asks Miss Leefolt's maid Aibleen, "Do you
ever wish you could...change things?" This lays the
groundwork for a 530-page novel telling the story of Black
female domestics in Jackson.
The first two chapters were written in the voice of a Black
maid named Aibileen, so I hoped that the book would actually
be about her. But this is America, and any Southern
narrative that actually touches on race must focus on a
noble white protagonist to get us through such dangerous
territory (in this case, Miss Skeeter; in To Kill a
Mockingbird, Atticus Finch). As a Black female reader, I
ended up feeling like one of "the help," forced to tend to
Miss Skeeter's emotional sadness over the loss of her maid
(whom she loved more than her own white momma) and her
social trials regarding a clearly racist "Jim Crow" bill.
What is most concerning about the text is the empathy that
we are supposed to have for Miss Skeeter. This character is
not a true white civil rights activist like the historical
figure, Viola Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 - March 25, 1965), a
mother of five from Michigan murdered by Ku Klux Klan
members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama.
Instead, Skeeter is a lonely recent grad of Ole Miss, who
returns home after college, devastated that her maid is gone
and that she is "stuck" with her parents. She remarks, "I
had to accept that Constantine, my one true ally, had left
me to fend for myself with these people." (81) Constantine
is Miss Skeeter's Black maid, and it's pretty transparent
that Stockett is writing about herself. We learn this in
the novel's epilogue, "Too Little, Too Late: Kathryn
Stockett, in her own words."
"My parents divorced when I was six. Demetrie became
even more important then. When my mother went on one of
her frequent trips[...] I'd cry and cry on Demetrie's
shoulder, missing my mother so bad I'd get a fever from
it." (p. 527)
"I'm pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever
asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in
Mississippi, working for our white family. It never
occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn't
something people felt compelled to examine. I have
wished, for many years, that I'd been old enough and
thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie the same question. She
died when I was sixteen. I've spent years imagining
what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this
book." (p. 530)
It would have behooved Stockett to ask her burning question
of another Black domestic, or at least read some memoirs on
the subject, but instead she substitutes her imagination for
understanding. And the result is that The Help isn't for
Black women at all, and quickly devolves into just another
novel by and for white women.
But when the novel attempts to enter the mindset of the
Black women, like Aibleen or her best friend Minny, suddenly
we enter the realm of the ridiculous. Although Stockett's
writing shows her talent, her ignorance of the real lives of
the Black women bleeds through. Her Black characters lack
the credibility reflected in Coming of Age in Mississippi, a
1968 memoir by Anne Moody, an African American woman growing
up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s. Moody recalls doing
domestic work for white families from the age of nine.
Moody's voice is one of a real Black woman who left her own
house and family each morning to cook in another woman's
So instead of incorporating a real Black woman's voice in a
novel purported to being about Black domestics, the
Skeeter/Stockett character is comfortingly centralized, and
I can see why white women relate to her. She is depicted as
a budding feminist, who is enlightened and brave. But in
reality, she uses the stories of the Black domestics in the
name of "sisterhood" to launch her own career, and then
leaves them behind. In my experience, the Skeeters of the
world grow up to be Gloria Steinem.
In a certain sense, The Help exemplifies the disconnect many
Black women have felt from Feminist Movement through the
second wave. For 20 years, I read accounts of Black women
who were alienated from that movement primarily populated by
middle-class white women. Black women have asserted their
voices since the 1960s as a means of revising feminism and
identifying the gap previously denied by the movement and
filled by their minds, spirits and bodies. Yet, because I
was born in the midst of the second wave and the Black
Feminist Movement, I never felt alienated, myself, until the
2008 Presidential election.
It started with the extremely unpleasant showdown between
Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris Lacewell, (now Perry)
surrounding Steinem's New York Times op-ed about then-
Senator Barack Obama. This was followed by the late
Geraldine Ferraro's dismissive comments that Senator Obama
was winning the race because he was not White. "If Obama was
a white man, he would not be in this position. ... He happens
to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught
up in the concept."
And even now that we have an elegant Black First Lady, I'm
troubled that our popular culture obsession is with the
"largely fictional" book, The Help. Sounds like an
opportune moment for second wave feminists to engage in some
serious deconstructionist critical analysis.
Or maybe not.
Once again, it seems that the sisters who make up the
"sisterhood" are left to fend for themselves, while second
wave feminists like Salon.com writer Laura Miller give a
tepid analysis of the legal controversy surrounding the
In February, Ablene Cooper, an African-American maid and
babysitter working in Jackson, Miss., where "The Help" is
set, filed suit against Stockett. Cooper accused Stockett of
causing her to "experience severe emotional distress,
embarrassment, humiliation and outrage" by appropriating
"her identity for an unpermitted use and holding her to the
public eye in a false light." In her article, "The Dirty
Secrets of The Help," Laura Miller writes:
"Cooper's lawsuit does manage to unearth two remarks
from the novel in which Aibileen seems (arguably) to
disparage her own color, but they are tiny scratches on
an otherwise glowing portrait."
Here's one of those "tiny scratches" posted on ABCnews.com.
"That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare
each other down across the kitchen floor," Aibileen says
in the book. "He big, inch, inch an a half. He black.
Blacker than me."
Laura Miller sees no problem with this, and focuses more on
the depiction of the white women in the text:
"Although it's difficult to believe that anyone would
feel "outrage, revulsion and severe emotional distress"
at being identified with the heroic Aibleen, her
employer, Miss Leefolt, is another matter. A vain,
status-seeking woman married to a struggling, surly
accountant and desperately trying to keep up appearances
in front of fellow members of the Jackson Junior League,
Miss Leefolt is the one who insists on adding a separate
"colored" bathroom to her garage. She does this partly
to impress Miss Hilly, the League's alpha Mean Girl (and
the novel's villain), but she also talks obsessively
about the "different kinds of diseases" that "they"
carry. Furthermore, Miss Leefolt is a blithely atrocious
mother who ignores and mistreats her infant daughter,
speaking wistfully of a vacation when "I hardly had to
see [her] at all." Like all of the white women in the
novel (except the journalist writing the maids'
stories), Miss Leefolt is cartoonishly awful - and her
maid has almost the same name as Stockett's sister-in-
law's maid. Fancy that!"
Of course, Miller insinuates that the real life Aibleen
lacks the agency to have initiated the lawsuit, and that
Stockett's sister-in-law surely coerced her.
I have never met the real-life Aibleen, but if she went to
the grocery store yesterday, she would have seen that The
Republic of Tea introduced its new limited-edition The Help
Tea - Caramel Cake Black Tea, and despite her educational
background, she would have understood that she won't get a
cent of the royalties. According to the website, The Help
Tea - Caramel Cake Black Tea, is inspired by Aibleen's best
friend Minny's famous caramel cake. The tea is being
marketed to drink with friends in celebration of a movie
where a "remarkable sisterhood emerges."
What no one wants to acknowledge is that the fictionalized
Skeeter leaves the Black domestics in the South - similar to
the white freedom riders during the Civil Rights Movement.
In real life, after appropriating the voice of working class
Black women, profiting, and not settling out of court,
Kathryn Stockett admits in a Barnes and Noble audio
interview that even her own maid was not fond of the novel:
"My own maid didn't really care for it too much, she said it
hit a little too close to home for her," Stockett reports
seven minutes and 35 seconds into the 10 minute interview
with Steve Bertrand. So, in the end, The Help and the
lawsuit are about white women who don't want true
sisterhood. They just want Help.
Duchess Harris, Ph.D., J.D., is an Associate Professor of
American Studies at Macalester College, and an Adjunct
Professor of Race and the Law at William Mitchell College of
Law. She is author of Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy
to Obama, and co-editor with Bruce D. Baum of Racially
Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and
Transformations of American Identity. You can follow her
blog www.SisterScholar.com, which cross-posts with the Star
Tribune, Race-Talk, and the Huffington Post.
Black-and-White Struggle With a Rosy Glow
by Nelson George
New York Times
August 9, 2011
This year I took Highway 80 from Montgomery to Selma, Ala.,
reversing the journey of activists in three separate civil
rights marches in March 1965. My destination was the Edmund
Pettus Bridge and the National Voting Rights Museum at its
base. The infamous Bloody Sunday protest, March 7, 1965, in
which several hundred marchers were beaten by state troopers
at the bridge is commemorated at the museum, a long one-
story building dedicated to "the foot soldiers of the
movement," the husbands and wives, schoolkids and
churchgoers who overcame their fear to dramatize their
desire for the unimpeded right to vote.
Inside the museum footprints of many of the marchers are
captured in concrete, Mann's Chinese Theater-style, along
with garments from that day's fateful confrontation. There's
a model of a Selma jail cell around the early '60s, where
scores of arrested protesters were crammed together, and
black-and-white photographs that document the day's odd mix
of hope and brutality.
Holding the many exhibits together, providing context and
testimony, are television screens playing the "Bridge to
Freedom" episode of the documentary "Eyes on the Prize," a
monumental 14-hour television series that wove news and
documentary footage, photographs and first-person interviews
into the most ambitious cinematic narrative of the movement
to date. Created by Henry Hampton for PBS, it was shown in
two parts in 1987 and 1990, but, unfortunately, because of
issues with copyright holders the film only became more
widely available beginning in 2006.
In this breach all manner of documentary and feature films,
from earnest biographies to goofy musicals, have tried to
illuminate, not just this period of American history, but
also the myriad ways in which humans react when faced with
profound moral choices. The latest cinematic endeavor is a
feature adaptation of "The Help," a 2009 novel by Kathryn
Stockett that has been on the best-seller list pretty much
since its release and has been published in 35 countries.
Crucial to the novel's success, just as it was in "Eyes,"
was the narrative point of view. Hampton's documentary
slides powerfully from one witness to another, giving
little-known organizers equal weight with the Dr. Kings and
Rosa Parkses of the movement. Ms. Stockett, a white woman
who toiled for five years on "The Help," uses the voices of
three women (Skeeter, an emerging white liberal writer, and
Minny and Aibileen, two black maids she persuades to tell
their stories) to telescope a wide range of emotions and
experiences in the Jim Crow Mississippi of 1962. If Skeeter
is Ms. Stockett's stand-in, then she makes a bold stretch by
using local dialect to voice the experiences of the black
women, creating a false sense of authenticity that's vital
to the novel.
In the film adaptation the director-writer Tate Taylor, a
childhood friend of Ms. Stockett's, adopts a clever
strategy. The film opens and closes with voice-over
narration by Viola Davis's Aibileen, and her voice is
interspersed throughout the film. But the narrative is
driven by Skeeter's journey from oddball college graduate to
rebellious neo-liberal muckraker, action that happens in the
book but is given more prominence in the stripped-down
screenplay structure. Minny, played with great wit by
Octavia Spencer, is still a huge part of the film, but her
narrative voice is sublimated to Aibileen's and Skeeter's,
which may simply be the difference between a sprawling novel
and a Hollywood feature.
A larger problem for anyone interested in the true social
drama of the era is that the film's candy-coated
cinematography and anachronistic super-skinny Southern
belles are part of a strategy that buffers viewers from the
era's violence. The maids who tell Skeeter their stories
speak of the risks they are taking, but the sense of
physical danger that hovered over the civil rights movement
is mostly absent.
Medgar Evers is murdered in Jackson during the course of the
story, but it is more a TV event, very much like the
assassination of President John F. Kennedy, than a felt
tragedy. The only physical violence inflicted on any of the
central characters is a beating Minny endures at the hands
of a heard, but unseen, husband. At its core the film is a
small domestic drama that sketches in the society
surrounding its characters but avoids looking into the
shadows just outside the frame.
That's not to say there haven't been successful attempts to
translate the tumultuous era - roughly 1954 to the early
'70s - into coherent narratives. It is just that almost none
of them have been fictional, whether made in Hollywood or
through independent financing. Over all, with "Eyes on the
Prize" as the benchmark, documentaries have provided far
superior cinematic experiences.
The first-person testimony that makes "Eyes" so riveting
also animates other successful documentaries on the subject:
works otherwise as stylistically different as Spike Lee's
exploration of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, "Four
Little Girls"; Stanley Nelson's celebration of the 1961
"Freedom Riders"; and the eclectic "Black Power Mixtape
1967-1975," scheduled for release on Sept. 9, a jumpy
compilation of clips from Swedish television about the
The stoicism and vigor of these interviewees, often first
viewed as young people in vintage Super-8 or 16-millimeter
film, and then as elders in contemporary digital formats,
create a dialogue between the inspired, committed youth they
were and the wizened, wistful, sometimes disappointed
middle-aged folks they became, discourses that no fiction
has yet matched for their poignant intensity.
While documentaries easily shift perspective, moving from
one witness to the next, the scope of the movement has, so
far, thwarted most fictional storytellers. The success of
the civil rights movement so altered daily life that some
filmmakers, like blind men with the proverbial elephant,
grab onto a tail or trunk.
In a screenplay that somewhat anticipates "The Help," "The
Long Walk Home" follows the relationship between a maid-
nanny and her employer during the 1955 Montgomery bus
boycott in a well-intentioned but rather toothless metaphor
for racial conciliation. Taking on the incipient black
capitalism of the late '60s and early '70s through the life
of the brash Washington D.J. Petey Greene was "Talk to Me,"
a fresh take on the era that suffered from some jumbled
plotting. This micro approach is certainly artistically
valid, though it has yet to yield the intimacy with history
the filmmakers intend.
Which bring us back to point of view. Do the filmmakers put
us inside the head of the black woman braving a gantlet of
jeering whites to integrate a segregated school? Do we
understand the strain on a white diner owner who finally
allows blacks to enter his place despite the anger of his
neighbors? It is this nuanced humanity that this movement
That most Hollywood-created features have failed to reach
this standard is no surprise. The film industry was as much
a pillar of institutional racism as any business in this
country. To indict American racism is, by definition, to
attack the machine that created decades of stereotypes.
The fail-safe response for Hollywood has been to depict
racial prejudice in cartoon caricature, a technique that has
made the Southern redneck a cinematic bad guy on par with
Nazis, Arab terrorists and zombies. By denying the casual,
commonplace quality of racial prejudice, and peering into
the saddest values of the greatest generation, Hollywood
perpetuates an ahistorical vision of how democracy and white
supremacy comfortably co-existed.
To protect viewers, sometimes at profound damage to the
historical record, white heroes are featured and sometimes
concocted for these movies, giving blacks a supporting role
in their own struggle for liberation. Films of this stripe
are legion, though the most irritating example remains
"Mississippi Burning," in which two F.B.I. agents are at the
center of an investigation into the murder of civil rights
activists. It was a bitter pill for movement veterans to
swallow since the agents' boss, J. Edgar Hoover, was as
vicious an opponent as any Southern Dixiecrat. Though not as
egregious, both Rob Reiner's "Ghosts of Mississippi" and the
adaptation of John Grisham's "A Time to Kill" fit this
The other Hollywood fallback strategy when dealing with the
movement (or race-themed film set in any period) is to
employ "the Magic Negro," a character whose function is to
serve as a mirror so that the white lead can see himself
more clearly, sometimes at the expense of the black
character's life. Sidney Poitier's selfless convict in "The
Defiant Ones" was probably the definitive Magic Negro role,
though the formula has survived decades, from Will Smith's
God-like caddy in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" up to
Jennifer Hudson's helpful secretary in "Sex and the City" -
just a few incarnations of this timeless saint.
But having a black character at the center of a story hasn't
guaranteed smooth sailing artistically or at the box office
either. Contemporary black moviegoers are several
generations removed from the signing of the 1964 Civil
Rights Act, and the tradition of noble struggle and
nonviolent protest that made progress possible. In grappling
with the audiences' changing sensibilities the wave of black
filmmakers who came of age in the early '90s have, when they
get their shot at civil rights history, shied away from
traditional protest narratives.
Mr. Lee's "Malcolm X" was a biopic about the leader's
development from street thug to Nation of Islam to Muslim, a
work that fed into a late '90s wave of interest in his life
that was largely ignited by hip-hop music. Easily the most
ambitious and hyped fictional film by a black director on
any aspect of the movement, Mr. Lee's film is at its best
depicting Malcolm's childhood, jail experiences and quiet
conversion to traditional Islam, moments that documentary
cameras were not privy to.
John Singleton, Oscar nominee for "Boyz N the Hood," made
"Rosewood," which looked at a 1923 attack on a prosperous
black town by angry whites and turned it into an action
movie, a bold but unsuccessful attempt to connect that
history to young audiences. Mario Van Peebles, director of
the hit "New Jack City," tried to capture the swagger of the
Black Panthers in "Panther" but was severely hampered by his
The 300-pound gorilla of civil rights films remains the life
of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There was a modest
television mini-series starring Paul Winfield in the late
'70s, but the task of filming an ambitious, era-
encapsulating fictional feature has enticed directors since
his assassination in 1968. ("The Mountaintop," a play with
Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. King and Angela Bassett as a
Memphis maid, coming to Broadway, will take a micro
approach, looking at the last night of his life.)
Within the last year two very different filmmakers - Paul
Greengrass, the action maven with a political heart, and the
audacious "Precious" auteur Lee Daniels - have had financing
fall apart for films built around Dr. King. HBO has been
developing a mini-series based on Taylor Branch's majestic
civil rights trilogy of books, which would follow up that
cable channel's 2001 "Boycott," about the Birmingham bus
Using Dr. King's life as the through-line for a film about
the civil-rights movement is the great white whale of
historic filmmaking. It has a cast of thousands, tragedy and
triumph, human frailty and strength, and could, with skill
and a lot of luck, redeem decades of formula and bad faith.
In the meantime seek out copies of "Eyes on the Prize."
[Nelson George is an author, filmmaker, producer, and critic
with a long career in analyzing and presenting the diverse
elements of African-American culture. His novel, "The Plot
Against Hip Hop," and documentary, "Brooklyn Boheme," will
both be released this fall.
Queen Latifah won the Golden Globe for playing the lead in
his directorial debut, the HBO movie 'Life Support'.. He co-
edited, with Alan Leeds, 'The James Brown Reader (Plume)', a
collection of previously published articles about the
Godfather of Soul that date as far back the late '50s.
He is an executive producer on two returning cable shows:
the third season of BET's American Gangster and the fifth
airing of VH1's Hip Hop Honors. George is the executive
producer of the Chris Rock hosted feature documentary, Good
Hair, a look at hair weaves, relaxers and the international
black hair economy that premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film
Festival...Nelson George served as host of Soul Cities, a
travel show that debuted in November 2008. on VH1 Soul.
Throughout the '80s and '90s George was an columnist for
Billboard magazine and the Village Voice newspaper, work
that led him to write a series of award winning black music
histories: 'Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the
Motown Sound'; 'The Death of Rythm & Blues'; and 'Hip Hop
America'. He won a Grammy for his contribution to the linear
notes package on the James Brown 'Star Time' boxed set.]
Coming to Terms with 'The Help'
by Leonard Pitts Jr.,
Tribune Media Services,
Posted 08/16/2011 at 4:00 pm EST
Mother used to tell this story.
She was working as a domestic -- this was the late '40s or
early '50s -- for a Memphis doctor when one day his daughter
came up and inexplicably began rubbing her skin. It turned
out the child had asked her grandmother why mom's skin was
dark, and the woman, a daughter of the unreconstructed white
South, had said the darkness was dirt. The poor little girl
was trying to rub the "dirt" off and was surprised it
wouldn't come. Years later, Mom's voice still mixed anger
and humiliation when she told that tale.
But such incidental cruelties were to be expected. Mom was
The Help, as in the Kathryn Stockett novel that was released
last week as a motion picture. I find myself with irresolute
feelings toward both. In this, I am hardly alone. Indeed,
"The Help" has met with a certain amount of scorn from some
African-Americans unseduced by its story of black maids and
their white employers in Jackson, Miss., in that pregnant
An organization called the Association of Black Women
Historians has slammed the movie for "stereotyping." Author
Valerie Boyd's review, which appeared on an Atlanta arts
blog, was headlined "A Feel-Good Movie for White People."
Some black literati have noted it as yet another example of
a white writer reaping great rewards from chronicling
African-American passages while black writers who traffic in
those same passages cannot get the time of day from
publishers and moviemakers.
Though the literati have a valid point, the criticism of
"The Help" strikes me otherwise as more reflexive than felt.
Stockett told the story of a white misfit bonding with a
black maid and helping her find her voice in a society that
had rendered her mute. If it is not exactly a black-power
manifesto, well, neither is it "Birth of a Nation II."
So what, then explains my own irresolution? I suspect it
traces to nothing more mysterious than the pain of
revisiting a time and place of black subservience. And,
perhaps, the sting of an inherited memory. That episode cost
her something to tell -- and even more to live.
As Americans, we lie about race. We lie profligately,
obstinately and repeatedly. The first lie is of its
existence as an immutable reality delivered unto us from the
very hand of God.
That lie undergirds all the other lies, lies of Negro
criminality, mendacity, ineducability. Lies of sexless
mammies and oversexed wenches. Lies of docile child-men and
brutal bucks. Lies that exonerate conscience and cover sin
with sanctimony. Lies that pinched off avenues of aspiration
till "the help" was all a Negro woman was left to be.
I think of those lies sometimes when aging white southerners
contact me to share sepia-toned reminiscences about some
beloved old nanny who raised them, taught them, loved them,
and who was almost a member of the family. Almost.
Reading their emails, I wonder if those folks understand
even now, a lifetime later, that that woman did not exist
simply as a walk-on character in a white person's life
drama, that she was a fully formed human being with a life,
and dreams and dreads of her own.
It is Kathryn Stockett's imperfect triumph to have
understood this and seek to make others understand it, too.
I think Mom would have appreciated the effort.
[Leonard Pitts, Jr. is the Washington, D.C.-based columnist
for The Miami Herald speaks to America with an uncommonly
rich and resonant voice. He offers candid opinions on
culture, race, families, relationships and the politics of
the human condition. The National Society of Newspaper
Columnists named him Columnist of the Year in 2002; and he
has also received awards for his outstanding commentary from
the American Society of Newspaper Editors and Editor &
Publisher. He offers candid opinions on culture, race,
families, relationships and the politics of the human
condition. The National Society of Newspaper Columnists
named him Columnist of the Year in 2002; and he has also
received awards for his outstanding commentary from the
American Society of Newspaper Editors and Editor &
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