It ‘Helps’ to Be White

It takes a special kind of talent to take a civil rights novel about black maids to Hollywood. But do you also have to be Caucasian?

Kathryn Stockett
Kathryn Stockett

And if you are a black woman author like Barbara Neely, you get no medals for bravery or Hollywood deals for doing the subversive work of giving voice to people who are mostly invisible.

There has been plenty of progress in the past 50 years. I was born in the 1970s, after the marches were marched and the legislation was signed. Both my grandmothers did domestic work, but growing up, my parents played tennis and bridge, and we once had a live-in nanny who was white.

I’m also a black writer who can relate to the slightly sleazy way Skeeter felt about building her career off other people’s stories. I remember doing one ethnographic interview in grad school, and a black man got very annoyed by my questions: “I don’t know why!” he told me. “Black people, we just do. White people the ones try to analyze everything!”

And the Mississippi maids would be pleased to see that their hard work led to the scene last month in Washington, D.C., when my neighborhood book club, LeBloom, discussed The Help. That day we were two Ph.D.s and three attorneys, all black women who lived in a historically black neighborhood that white people were integrating. On purpose–no court order.

We all loved the book, but talk quickly turned to how black professionals like us have been living in our community abutting Howard University for 100 years and demanding city services. But it was only when white people reached critical mass that the trash got picked up on time.

The post-civil rights generation may not have white privilege, but we do have Oprah, who is the equivalent of about 1,000 plucky white women. And that’s why I don’t have particularly high hopes for what will happen to this sweet book when Hollywood gets its grubby hands on it. If the recent piece in People magazine speculating on who the cast would be is any indication, we need to brace ourselves.

Naturally, they thought Mo’Nique should play Minny, the “sassy!” black maid. But I was absolutely done when I saw who they picked to play Aibileen, the sainted, unmarried maid who secretly whispered subversive messages about civil rights to the white babies in her care: Oprah.

Deep, deep sigh.

Natalie Hopkinson is The Root‘s media and culture critic. Listen to her discuss The Help. Follow her on Twitter.

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