Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Jim Crow Lite?
Like everyone else who participates in a book club, I read Kathryn Stockett's The Help.
I never thought of it as Jim Crow lite.
I thought of it as a classic tale of queen bee gets hers and those she abused cheer from the sidelines.
Wendell Pierce sees the movie treatment of the novel as a sanitized version of the segregation that regulated black lives before the civil rights movement gained momentum.
I can't ever know because I never lived in the South, or so much as visited the South during the era Ms. Stockett described in her book. No one I know had a maid of any color in their home. The whole concept is foreign to me.
Mr. Pierce has tweeted that the film he watched with his mother, a former maid, was offensive because it didn't genuinely express the terror of the time.
Perhaps the actor was expecting something more true, almost like a documentary, but instead discovered that the story isn't so much about a factual re-telling of an era but a plot device to tell an old story in a new way.
Think Stephen King's Carrie but without the blood.
YA lit is full of stories about the mean girl who gets it in the end. The racist characters in The Help are nothing more than mean girls who are abusing everyone they deem socially inferior.
By inserting an element of racism, Ms. Stockett elevated her version of the tale into something different, and publishable. There is no overarching, grand message about Jim Crow in her book. The mean girls could just as easily be high school cheerleaders heaping scorn on the misfit girl.
As long as the mean girls get punished in the end, the story flows along in its settled course. To expect something deeper just leads to disappointment, as Mr. Pierce and his mother discovered. There is no deep insight into the reality of Jim Crow laws because The Help isn't really about any of that.
It's the misfits, both black and white, coming together to take down a common enemy.
That's all. It's a simple story, really. And one that's been told and re-told countless times.