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Here’s Hoping The Help Is Not Another Historical Failure of a Movie
By Susan Klopfer, civil rights and diversity author/speaker
Whore’s Lake, outside of Drew, Miss., where white KKK females reportedly threw bodies of their black murder victims, as late as the early 1960s. Drew is some 40 miles southeast of Greenwood, the set of a summer movie The Help that focuses on Mississippi’s civil rights past. (Photo by Susan Klopfer)
For many folks like my husband and me, summer means buttered popcorn and escape movies. The Help, currently in the Hollywood spotlight, opens Aug. 10, and so far, the California film machine is staying busy, pumping out media releases and news stories, some even pledging this Mississippi-based summertime movie is not another whitewash, like Mississippi Burning.
Their promises are arriving daily through countless pre-movie stories, on and offline, yet it is starting to feel (at least a little, to me) like The Help probably does not do much to portray the truly violent history of what was going on around its characters at the time it takes place, the early 1960s in Greenwood, Mississippi.
I want The Help to leave audiences with some real education and do more than lightly dip into Greenwood’s notorious, racist history. Having lived in the Delta, writing extensively about its modern civil rights movement, I know this town was far more than a sleepy, little Southern berg, where black maids gossiped, white women attended social club meetings, and only white males were violent towards African Americans, who long after the Civil War were still struggling to survive in this country, especially behind the Magnolia Curtain.
If nothing else, if this movie does not correct this idea, do not come away believing that only white males committed atrocious violence, back in those days. There are small lakes and ponds scattered throughout the Delta, known to be the final resting placing of countless bodies, African American murder victims.
People still living near Whore’s Lake over in Drew, for example, will tell you that black women were killed by white women, and their bodies were thrown into these murky waters. The white women, apparently Klan members, were reacting to rumors that their husbands and boyfriends were sleeping with these black women. In today’s town of Drew, children still play on segregated baseball fields.
There are so many stories I could share about Greenwood – violent accounts mostly kept out of today’s “history” books, especially those school books meeting Texas curriculum standards.
One of my favorite stories is how Greenwood activist, Aaron Henry, successfully kept Christmas profits away from white Greenwood when he took on the town’s white merchants in a highly successful strike. (See A Christmas Boycott That Worked.)
I wonder if Henry is even mentioned in The Help. I do not know how one could tell the story of Greenwood’s modern civil rights movement history without including this famous civil rights leader.
Apparently, this DreamWorks film attempts to present a complex tale of white women and their relationships with the black house cleaners who also care for their children. The script, based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, has one thing going for it: the book’s popularity. Reviewers loved it, readers couldn’t finish it fast enough, and it stayed atop bestseller lists for close to two years, according to Los Angeles Times reporter, Nicole Sperling.
Some early critics are detracted over a white author writing in a black dialect for a pair of maids who serve as two of the book’s three narrators. “Others felt the white narrator — an idealistic college grad named Skeeter Phelan, who persuades the black maids of Jackson, Miss., to tell their stories to her and causes a sensation when she publishes their tales anonymously — was too much of a savior,” Sperling reports.
Actor Octavia Spencer, known for her small but powerful role in “Seven Pounds” starring Will Smith, plays Minny Jackson, a sharp-tongued maid with an abusive husband. So would a sharp-tongued maid have survived in Greenwood in the early 60s? More than likely, if she angered the town’s white power brokers, she would be beaten to death or at least raped and left to die.
Henry, so courageous and profound, was typically cautious and polite in his dealings with Greenwood’s white power base, and yet this remarkable leader often feared for his life. His Greenwood home and his pharmacy were bombed. His house remains in rubbles in a Greenwood neighborhood. Will these Aaron Henry sites appear in the background?
Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“Doubt”) plays the role of servant Aibileen. Davis tells Sperling of seeing a “huge responsibility within the African-American community.” However, there have been “entire blogs committed to saying that I’m a sellout just for playing a maid,” Davis adds.
One good thing going for The Help, is that it was filmed in the South, primarily in Greenwood, with a population 15,000, some 100 miles north of Jackson. History lurks around every corner and Mississippi’s ghosts are still present — in the nearby Tallahatchie River where in 1955 the brutally beaten body of a 14-year-old chicago black boy, Emmett Till, was dumped. Killed for whistling at a white store-owner’s wife, over in the cotton hamlet of Money.
Till’s slaying on Aug. 28 1955 helped mobilize the civil rights movement, since Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Ala., heard about the killing and how jurors found the two accused men innocent of killing Till who was visiting Delta relatives. She had already planned her act of civil disobedience, and decided the time had finally come to take action.
Mississippi’s first state leader of the NAACP, the talented Medgar Evers, was shot and killed in front of his Jackson home by Byron De La Beckwith, a Greenwood member of the white Citizen’s Councils, an organization headquartered in this Delta town. Councils members, termed by journalist Hodding Carter, Jr. as the “uptown Klan,” were not known for their civility to black citizens.
Councils came into being soon after Brown v. Topeka Board of Education as people in Mississippi reacted with fury over school integration. One month before Emmett Till came into Mississippi, a well-known minister, Rev. George Lee of Belzoni, was shot and killed in front of his business. Local officers would assert that Lee’s tooth fillings exploded in his head. Belzoni is about an hour southwest of Greenwood. (Voting Rights Act of 1965: Rev. George Lee Remembered)
Filming in the ghostly Mississippi Delta apparently had an impact on their performances, both women told Sperling. Spencer said she returned to Greenwood in May, after the film, and realized she “liked it a lot better.” But while the ensemble was working there, the actress remembered being unhappy.
“When you are shooting right around the corner from the Tallahatchie River and you know that … Emmett Till’s body was found in that river … and you know (Michael) Schwerner, (Andrew) Goodman and (James) Chaney (the civil rights workers killed in 1964 about 100 miles east of Greenwood) and the history of that and the history of Medgar Evers, and the fact that those people look just like you, it’s hard to relax,” she told the Times.
In nearby Baptist Town, where some of the exterior filming occurred, this all-black community today reports 85 percent unemployment and there has not been a single high school graduate in years.
So did the actors feel any extra sense of responsibility in playing these roles because of the history? Here is what they told Sperling:
“Spencer: There are a lot of people who don’t like the idea of us playing maids without knowing anything about the story. Not knowing how proactive these women are in their community and how they are propagating change.
“Davis: They don’t care. It’s the fact that we are playing maids. It’s the image and the message more so than the execution.”
Both women had to pause and really think about this history, before signing on – making certain The Help was not just another “Gone With the Wind.”
I wonder if they read any books written by civil rights veterans (CRM-Vets) to prepare for their roles? This group is formally organized and many members have written countless, detailed histories of their experiences trying to bring Mississippi into the modern world.
I have not seen their research mentioned and my doubts are this film will not be much better than GWTW or Mississippi Burning – if so, a real disappointment. Bringing in consultants, like CRM-Vet and author Constance Curry, a civil rights activist and prize-winning author, would have given The Help far more credence.
Curry is loaded with credentials — a fellow at the Institute for Women’s Studies, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, Curry has a law degree from Woodrow Wilson College and did graduate work in political science at Columbia University before she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bordeaux in France. She earned her B.A. degree in History, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She was a Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute, Center for Civil Rights, Charlottesville.1990-91.
She is the author of several well-known civil rights works, including her award winning book, Silver Rights (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1995; Paper back Harcourt Brace, 1996), which won the Lillian Smith Book Award for nonfiction in 1996; was a finalist for the 1996 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; was recommended by the New York Times for summer reading in 1996; and was named the Outstanding Book on the subject of Human Rights in North America by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights.
With an introduction by Marian Wright Edelman, Silver Rights tells the true story of Mrs. Mae Bertha Carter and her family’s struggle for education in Drew, Miss., a tiny Sunflower County, cotton town, close to Greenwood. The Carters were Mississippi Delta sharecroppers living on a cotton plantation in the 1960s when they sent seven of their thirteen children to desegregate an all-white school system in 1965 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Actually, the children took the lead, enrolling in the previously segregated white schools when their parents were out of town. Curry’s book provides a wonderful look into the family’s determination to obtain an education for their children.
Her most recent book is Mississippi Harmony with Ms. Winson Hudson, published fall 2002 by Palgrave/St, Martin’s press. Mississippi Harmony tells the life story of Mrs. Winson a civil rights leader from Leake County, Miss.,who also challenged segregation in the 1960s.
Curry also collaborated in and edited Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement (University of Georgia Press, 2000) and the book that began my person civil rights journey, Aaron Henry: the Fire Ever Burning (University Press of Mississippi, 2000). This book still makes me cry and is my personal favorite. It is the book I recommend for someone new to this history.
Curry, who has countless more credentials, is the producer of a newly released documentary film entitled “The Intolerable Burden,” (winner of the John O’Connor film award, Jan. 2004, from the American Historical Association) based on her book Silver Rights, but showing today’s resegregation in public schools and the fast track to prison for youth of color.
Curry, like me, is white. She is a woman who is firm in her message, and is someone who would have had no trouble – no trouble, at all – making certain The Help tells the real story of the modern civil rights movement, and doesn’t end up as just another horribly inaccurate documentary of this most important time of American history.
For those who are looking to learn some new history about the modern civil rights movement, seeing The Help might be a good place to start. But only followed by reading books based on the true stories, books that are solidly researched, books telling readers what really happened some fifty to sixty years back in a time warp that hasn’t totally disappeared.
Good reading. You know that you can still pop some kernals before you sit down to your book, kindle, Nook or iPad.
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Susan Klopfer is the author of three civil rights books: Who Killed Emmett Till?, Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited, and The Emmett Till Book. She recently wrote Cash In On Diversity; How Getting Along With Others Pays Off.
Susan is a former award-winning journalist and was an acquisitions and development editor for Prentice Hall. Susan holds a degree in Communication from Hanover College and an M.B.A. from Indiana Wesleyan University. She lives in Gallup, New Mexico. She enjoys speaking on civil rights and diversity.