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Historical Fiction in Movies: The Help

September 20, 2011

Recent blogs in this space have considered the questions of accuracy in historical films and the depictions of characters with whom we can identify in historical fiction generally.  The recent best-seller-cum-movie, The Help, offers a chance to look at both.  It also raises a third issue: the problem of a member of one ethnic group writing an insider’s tale about another.

The screenplay is a far more faithful rendering of the book than an author can reasonably expect.  (Hollywood resisted the temptation to throw in car chases or vampires, for instance.)  Historians find no fault with the depiction of caste or the subtext of terror in race relations in the sixties South.  If anything, that aspect of the story was fairly muted (see Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi).  As far as historical accuracy, Stockton depiction is sound.

Character development, however, seems to have run this über successful first-time novelist into a hornets’ nest of criticism, which she can contemplate deeply all the way to the bank.  The uninitiated observer from far outside the American South might be tempted to criticize Stockton’s depiction of the black women in the book as unrealistically noble and strong, but he’d get his inbox scorched if he did.  Stockton stands accused by at least one critic of using stock Hollywood characters (think Amos n’ Andy), and another for—and this is a particularly dicey issue for white authors to deal with—the dialect she puts in their mouths.  The issue that has been around since white artists like Elvis Presley (or Vanilla Ice, for those who can’t remember the other guy) started making money interpreting black music—is Stockton sharing history, or expropriating it?  (This is quite apart from the Jackson, MS maid who avers Stockton unfairly borrowed her life for the central character.)  One begins to understand Ms. Stockton’s exasperated outburst, “I just make this shit up.”  

Whose history is it, anyway?  Can white authors faithfully depict the racial oppression of African Americans?  For that matter, can men write women’s history?  As a historical novelist, I find it much safer to write about dead people.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2011 1:23 am

    I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, and I probably won’t in this case. I’m afraid ‘The Help’ falls into that category of works by authors who end up projecting historical results back into a moment in time before the historical players could have known that (for the most part) the U.S. would ultimately become a post-racial society in which polite people know that we should all at the very least give lip service to the notion that all races should be treated as equals. Most authors who chose write fiction about the Civil Rights Movement are inspired by the heroism and courage, and thus can’t resist the happy ending. (‘The Blind Side’ is another example.)

    Your interesting post asks whether men are able to write about women’s experiences, or whites to write about African Americans. It is obviously very difficult to capture the essence of lives that are not like your own, “obviously” because so few authors do it well. Still, it is essential that they continue to push expectations by writing outside their comfort zone, even if the result often adheres to a pre-conceived narrative–what did they call this in grad school? “triumphalism”?–in which we all learn from one another and ultimately become better people. Readers and critics should seek out and reward writers who challenge preconceived notions and recreate history in all its complexity, and especially eschew the happy ending!

  2. October 3, 2011 9:12 pm

    Oh my gosh, how have I missed this blog all these months? Some fascinating thoughts,here. Thank you!

  3. Eric Hanson permalink
    October 11, 2011 6:02 pm

    The cries against an author writing of groups outside of their immediate experience come across as “You can’t understand my pain!”

    I am in general agreement with Wahistorian in that, despite the relative rarity of success, such efforts, if taken genuinely. are likely to foster more understanding and empathy.

    It is reasonable to point out flaws where they exist, but just silly to suggest that the effort not be undertaken.

    And as to the relative safety of writing about dead people, beware their descendants!

    • October 11, 2011 6:41 pm

      It is wise to be in general agreement with Wahistorian–because she’s a whole lot smarter than I am!


  4. October 22, 2011 4:13 am

    Eric and Kurt, you are both too kind. And Eric, you are so right about being wary of descendants–never so true as when you are working in local history!

  5. October 22, 2011 4:14 am

    And when’s the next blog post?! 🙂

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