Critics: It Would 'Help' If You Saw It

Illustration for article titled Critics: It Would 'Help' If You Saw It

Ablene Cooper was saddened and dismayed to hear a Mississippi judge dismiss her lawsuit against author Kathryn Stockett for using her name (Aibileen, in the book The Help) and image. Sadly, she has only herself to blame. Cooper waited a year after receiving a copy of the book to read it and become offended — past the one-year statute of limitations on this type of thing.


Cooper may not have been interested in reading The Help for the same reason many black women were slow in coming to it: It perpetuates some familiar and distasteful stereotypes. If she had taken the time to consider the book before all the hype started, Cooper would at least have been able to have her case considered.

There's a lesson here. Refusing to read a book or see a provocative film is the worst kind of black anti-intellectualism: By judging a book by its cover, as it were, you only cheat yourself.

The Internet has given rise to kitchen-counter media critics who posit theories and mount boycotts of books and movies they haven't seen or read yet, encouraging a sustained, angry ignorance and anti-intellectual bent that finds everyone with an Internet connection following suit. Careful consideration and commentary on the arts has fallen out of vogue in favor of The Uninformed Rant, followed quickly by The Boycott — as with The Help

Before the film made it to the cineplex, loud, vociferous pockets of bloggers popped out of nowhere to boycott a movie no one had seen, based on a book many steadfastly refused to read. It all reminded me a lot of what happened with my book.

With The Help, I watched largely uninformed people take potshots at not just the book, but the author and the actors, passing off conjecture and snark for media criticism. I'm not suggesting that anyone should have to suffer through everything or anything, for that matter. But no matter what, you always owe it to yourself to be more informed, not less.

Common sense might tell you that certain subjects aren't going to please your palate, but you still do a favor to yourself in considering even objectionable material, since it can often surprise you by defying convention, like The Help. Bromides like "I know sh— when I smell it" don't advance the cause of essential, practical curiosity.


Many folks are too caught up with the whiteness of the book's author and the film's screenwriter-director. While I think it's a fair criticism that Spike Lee might have treated the script differently from Tate Taylor, I respect Stockett's right to tell a story the best way she knows.

I don't know the value of getting caught up in who is telling a story. Evaluating an artist's vision using his or her color or gender as a metric is jejune and nonsensical on its face. Weighing the art — any art — has to be about the conversation generated from the art, and being informed enough about that art to have such a conversation intelligently.


It seems as if there is a growing angry and vocal contingent of Black Misery Bloggers who don't like anything and would have you boycott everything. These people go to theaters and bookstores looking for a history lesson, correction of the record or spiritual affirmation.

They often want more than one can reasonably expect. They can't keep any place open or in business, but they can sure close places down; bookstores are closing all across America in vital, important black neighborhoods because reading — being fully informed and engaged — is not hot in the streets anymore.


Best to disregard and ignore anyone suggesting that you avoid a book or a movie that offers you a chance to expand your worldview, no matter how painful it may be. All learning isn't easy; every lesson is not immediately useful. Groupthink is for suckers. You lose nothing by thinking for yourself, making a choice to be well-read, engaged and informed on any variety of matters and media.

The book's author and the screenwriter of The Help freely, wisely confessed the obvious to a crowd full of journalists last week: that is, that they were "making sh— up," as smart fiction is wont to do. The film is an adaptation of a novel that deserves to be considered on its own merit, as its own work of art. Don't take anyone else's word for it — see it for yourself.


Good art won't please everyone, and this is especially true of dramatic work. Stereotypes are caricatures based on archetypes we all know or know of. Stereotypes often offend people, but fiction needs stereotypes; writers, dramatists, essayists and others cannot create without them. They are everywhere. So much of cinema is catharsis — identifying with characters' lives, their struggles and their redemption on-screen.

Black women are tired of identifying with certain tropes — I get it. Everyone wants to hear a different story, but the trick is to tell a different story with a familiar ring and universal appeal. If you got something on that, then we'll all see it at a theater near you. Until that glorious day, all books and movies are worth your time. All stories are necessary. All good art is troublesome.


Jimi Izrael's most recent book is The Denzel Principle: Why Black Women Can't Find Good Black Men.

Single Father, Author, Screenwriter, Award-Winning Journalist, NPR Moderator, Lecturer and College Professor. Habitual Line-Stepper