From Hattie McDaniel's infamous Academy Award-winning performance to Whoopi Goldberg's portrayal of Odessa Cotter in "The Long Walk Home," the plight of "the help" certainly isn't a story untold. But like many works in the vein of Kathryn Stockett's debut novel and the film adaptation that debuted this week, they function as only a single point of reference for what is a truly layered, multigenerational tale.
"The film and the book are focused on a very specific demographic," says Melba Boyd, Distinguished Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. "We're talking the South, we're talking Mississippi, and that isn't necessarily the same situation for black women throughout the United States at the time," she says.
Boyd also notes the "condition" that was Jim Crow-era Mississippi, a hot spot of extreme racism, segregation and violence that she characterizes as endemic and almost in a class of its own.
That isn't to say that racial politics and socio-economic disparities weren't at play elsewhere. But even in Mississippi, black women writers were part of a concerted effort to move past those obstacles -- an effort that didn't rely on any white female benefactor.
Stockett's image of black maids cowering in fear beside the only person who they believe can tell their story has drawn much of the criticism of this film genre. Perhaps it was the unacknowledged female trailblazers, who were indeed telling their stories, whom Stockett's lead character, Aibileen, had in mind when she left her life as a maid with high hopes for a new one -- as a writer.
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