By Alan Bean
The Hollywood adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, opens in theaters this Wednesday. Critics have been kind. Evaluated as a good story, The Help is engaging and emotionally satisfying. But isn’t this another Hollywood racial melodrama in which a noble white person intercedes on behalf of helpless Negroes?
Yes and no. Civil Rights activists were deeply offended by the 1988 potboiler Mississippi Burning, a civil rights era drama that gave the FBI credit for staring down the KKK in Philadelphia, MS. Why, critics ask, can’t Hollywood do a civil rights story about black people standing up for black people? The answer is simple: Hollywood makes movies for a mass audience, and that means creating narratives that appeal to white people. Sure, you always want to toss in a black guy so black viewers can relate to the story in a modest fashion; but that’s generally as far as it goes.
Christopher Kelly’s insightful piece on the social significance of Kathryn Stockett’s first novel is helpful in this regard. Stockett, not surprisingly, says she didn’t intend to write a book about the civil rights movement, nor was she attempting to make a political statement. “She just wanted to write a compelling story, partly inspired by the maids who helped raise her in the late 1970s and ’80s.”
Kelly is troubled by the primary focus of the movie. “The Help is ultimately Skeeter’s story — a tale of a white woman who triumphs on the shoulders of black characters. Working in secret, Skeeter persuades Aibileen to get other maids to talk about their lives. Even when Aibileen or Minny is narrating the story, it’s Skeeter whose actions dictate the narrative. Will she be able to secure enough interview subjects? Will she finish her book before the deadline imposed by an editor in New York?”
In Kelly’s estimation, “It’s a story that allows white readers to feel good about the way black and white characters band together in the face of racism, even as it also reaffirms a ‘whites lead, blacks follow’ social structure.”
In conversation with Ms. Stockett, Kelly began to understand the focus of the book. “The subject of race,” Stockett explained, “just isn’t something you openly talk about if you’re from Jackson — even if you have written a novel about race.”
In other words, the author came as close to honesty as she could realistically get. The racial history of the South (Mississippi in particular) is so painful that there must be a gradual awakening to the truth that will likely occupy the better pary of a century. The Help touches on the assassination of Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary gunned down in June of 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith, a resident of the Delta town of Greenwood. While Evers was being murdered in Jackson, Earl Wayne Patridge, the Sheriff of Mississippi’s Montgomery County, was ordering two black inmates to beat Fannie Lou Hamer, Annelle Ponder and June Johnson half to death in the Montgomery County Jail.
Hollywood can deal with the lone gunman who felled a lone civil rights leader; it will take a few more decades until the film industry is ready to deal with Fannie Lou and Earl Wayne.
While Friends of Justice was at the LeFlore County courthouse in Greenwood this summer, Margaret Block told me an amazing story. Margaret is the sister of Sam Block, perhaps the most courageous and indefatigable civil rights activist in the state of Mississippi. On Good Friday, in the spring of 1963, Margaret told me, her brother rode a mule into Greenwood. “He told me about it one time as if it wasn’t anything important,” she says. “But you’ve got to understand that Sam was sure he wasn’t going to survive the work he was doing in Greenwood–sooner or later, he believed, somebody was going to take him down. So, by riding that mule into town he was saying, ‘Look, you did it to Jesus, so, come on now people, why don’t you just go ahead and do it to me.”
That’s not Sam on the mule pictured at the head of this post; that picture was taken in Washington DC in 1968. But I would pay good money for a picture of Sam Block riding his mule into Greenwood. And I wish we had a movie industry courageous enough to produce a film about people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Bob Moses and Sam Block.
Maybe white America isn’t ready for that kind of movie.
On the other hand, until that kind of movie is made, we never will be ready.