So I went to see The Help a few weeks ago. You know that movie based on the book of the same name – which by the way has been on the New York Times bestsellers list for two years.
Now, for the record, I did not (could not bring myself) to read the book. And not because it was written by a white woman (why that would be a ridiculous reason) but because of a variety of other reasons – one of which was the machine behind the book. You know the machine that packages, promotes and markets something with so much savvy and finesse that you run out and buy it even if you don’t need it?
My reason for not reading the books is because African-American writers had tackled the same story numerous times – and those writers weren’t given the opportunity to have their stories read by Ms. Ann and Mr. Charlie (white people). And when I say given the opportunity, I mean to say that their books were not marketed/promoted over that seam that has turned into a chasm in the literary community – known as the color line.
Alice Childress wrote quite eloquently and with great wit about The Help in her 1956 book: Like One of The Family.
Childress’ book was not lauded and celebrated in the way that Stockett’s novel was. And she did not receive a movie deal.
In fact the first MAJOR MOTION PICTURE to be adapted from a book written by an African-American was in 1984. The movie was based on the Jim Haskin’s novel: The Cotton Club which was published by Random House in 1977.
Alice Walker’s (the first African-American Woman to win the Pulitzer for fiction) Pulitzer Prize winning novel: The Color Purple – was the second.
How many books written by Af-Am writers have been adapted to the screen and financed by a major motion picture studio since The Color Purple?
I have a number in my head…a number so small I don’t even need five fingers to count it off. But I could be wrong. You tell me.
Decades upon decades of movie making and publishing and our works (meaning black folk) remain widely ignored by the wider white population. This of course is through no fault of our own – the machine could make most of us a household name like Stockett, Grisham and Patterson. But alas, we seem not to be worthy.
It’s heart wrenching. It’s slit your wrist, go on a rampage sort of upsetting for us American writers who happen to be black.
A STORY OF SISTERHOOD….The movie posters for The HELP screamed out at me from the glass bus shelters that dot the sidewalks in my neighborhood.
I went to see the movie because I love Viola Davis and now I love Octavia Spencer. I went because there are so few images of us on the silver screen. I went because Viola and Octavia and their supporting cast have to eat and I hope my twelve dollars helped them to continue to do that. I went because if I didn’t the Hollywood muckety-mucks would shake their long white fingers at me and say:
You didn’t support the film – the film starring YOUR people and because of that we will not make another one for many, many years and maybe even never!
That’s why I went.
In the theater, I sat next to a white couple that appeared to be in their early sixties. Did I sit next to them on purpose?
I wanted to be close enough to hear their comments and feel their vibes.
The first few scenes of the movie made me very, very angry and made the white couple embarrassingly uncomfortable.
Did I enjoy the movie?
Yes, I did. I appreciated the cinematic quality and the acting. (Bryce Dallas Howard’s portrayal of the bigoted Hilly Holbrook raised hair in places I did not know I had hair!)
Was the movie about sisterhood??
I can’t say that it was. If it was about sisterhood, Skeeter would have remained in town, standing alongside the people whose lives she disrupted by appropriating their stories for her own benefit. Because really, how did the publication of the book help the maids?
So what if Skeeter did split the royalty money from the book with the maids? Money won’t do you any good when you’re swinging from a tree limb… if you get my meaning.
And what of the real life Skeeter? Kathryn Stockett. Will she split her earnings with Ablene Cooper the Mississippi maid who claims Stockett used her image and likeness for the character of Aibileen; driving force of the novel?
Last I heard Stockett’s attorneys where fighting to have the case dismissed. I ask, where is the sisterhood in that real life drama?
If the sisterhood is there – it’s as sparse as the works of Af-Am writers in white-suburban bookstores.
If I’m coming across a little salty today, I’m not sorry for it. I’m damn mad that myself and quite a large number of my contemporaries pour their heart, sweat and blood into writing BRILLIANT works of literature only to have our books dismissed by reviewers, awards committees and such, simply because our skin is not the white – I mean the right color.
Yeah, I said it.
In closing, I wish you a happy Wednesday – me – I’m going to take some time to tend to these emotional wounds I’ve managed to rip open, yet again. I’ll do this by standing in front of a mirror, looking my image dead in the eye, wrapping my arms around my shoulders in a warm, nurturing hug and soothing myself with the words of Aibileen:
“You is smart…you is kind… you is important…”
Causes Bernice McFadden Supports
Hurston Wright Foundation
Girls Write Now
Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS)