Why are some of the best and brightest black female voices in America so outraged over the new movie The Help based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel?
Well, according to the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), and others like Professor Melissa Harris Perry of Tulane University, both the book and the movie represent widespread stereotyping and historical inaccuracies. They also take issue with the fact that Ms. Stockett's book which has sold over three million copies, and became a major motion picture that raked in close to $20 million dollars in its opening weekend debut has profited at the expense of the very women whose stories she purports to share so accurately in her novel. Couple this with the fact that Stockett is now being sued in a Mississippi court of law (on August 16, 2011) by a woman named Ablene Cooper, an African American nanny and housekeeper who works for Stockett's brother and sister-in-law, for stealing her likeness and story without her permission, and you have a perfect storm of emotions and resentment from a black female community that has often been silenced and shut out of "mainstream" book success and film adaptations when we share our own stories.
The ABWH further says in part in an "open" statement released on Friday, "that despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women's employment opportunities. Up to 90 percent 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. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.
While I agree with most of the sentiments expressed by the ABWH there is a larger, more contemporary issue that we need to consider--and that is this: some of the most poignant and heart-stirring stories of black women's lives both past and present have been told by the likes of Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Anne Moody, Alice Walker, Lorene Cary, Maya Angelou, Jill Nelson and now women of my generation (self included) are starting to share our complex journey as young, urban, professional, upwardly mobile black women in America, living in the "Age of Michelle Obama." Yet, very few if any of these books become mega-best-sellers or are adapted on film into a major motion picture.
Not to mention when we do get published, our books rarely get the marketing support and print runs of our white counterparts. This is not sour grapes, this is the reality black women live with everyday in America. And this is the real reason why so many black women are disgusted and maybe even angered by the success of a white female author who tells our story (as fiction) and is embraced and celebrated for doing so by the mainstream media, book reviews, film world, and the like.
This is no different than John Grisham's A Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning, or Ghosts of Mississippi and the like. In all of these books, turned to film, there is a white hero who saves the black people from the bad guys. Even portrayals of the Civil Rights era give the Kennedy brothers and others a heap of credit for somehow liberating black people. NOT TRUE.
The truth is that black people liberated ourselves. We organized, we marched, we protested, we put the USA's system of legalized segregation on trial -- and we won.
That is what I think is at the crux of what bothers us all so much. It is not that our white brothers and sisters did not play a role in our liberation from slavery and Jim Crow, they did. But the challenge for us as black authors, historians, and film-makers is that we cannot often get our stories told or shared on a broad national platform because the people often making the decisions to publish, support or fund these stories do not see them as valuable or relevant.
I will end by sharing that I know of what I speak. Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama is my first book. It has nationally commissioned research that costs over $30,000 dollars, it includes groundbreaking insights and trends for today's black woman, and it was published by a notable publishing house in May 2011 (but with a very small print run -- my publisher hedged its bets). The book did much better than expected (for a black woman's book), after being given a great reception by black radio, TV, and press and it has sold over 10,000 copies out the gate. The subject matter could not be more timely and relevant (it came out the same week Psychology Today said black women were scientifically unattractive), yet this book which tells the authentic story of modern-day black women of a new generation, our struggles, road-blocks, hopes and dreams has yet to be reviewed by a major news paper, or given time on a major morning show, or mainstream radio program. Those same producers and editors embrace Ms. Stockett and others like her so readily, while pushing those who live the reality into a corner to be silenced.
If I had a dime for every white female or white male editor who has told me or my publicist that the book is just "not for them" or that "it is nice but not for their audience," I would be rich. And this is what is really driving the furor of black women scholars, historians, and journalists who once again have to sit by and hear how wonderful a white woman author is for "telling our story," and watch her be embraced, validated, covered, and rewarded for doing so (even if inaccurately so). This is something that even in the year 2011, rarely happens to and for us as black women authors and screenplay writers.