Monday, February 27, 2012

Author of "The Help" Exploits Black Maid's Life Story

Abilene Cooper,
"The Help" author's family
What a relief that "the Help" didn't win the Oscar for best picture. (See Melissa Perry-Harris's insightful comments here). Reviewers of Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" have credited  this bestselling novel and #1 box office hit, with going beyond stereotypes. But did it do so by exploiting the ugliest stereotype of them all?    On August 16, 2011, an Atlanta judge dismissed  a suit brought by the Stockett family's black maid, Abilene Cooper, claiming that Stockett's story "borrowed" from her life without attribution.  I'm disappointed but not surprised at the verdict, because America's justice system sometimes fairs poorly when it comes to moral issues.

That is, American readers and movie-goers are reveling in the feel-good sentimentality of "The Help."  And yet what this whole business shows is how little has changed in Mississippi race relations between white women and the black maids exploited by the racial caste system.  Is anyone really surprised that the Kathryn Stockett has received accolades and millions of dollars from this work and her family's black maid, whose life story the author embellished and then labeled fiction,  has gotten nothing?  An article in this week's Mail Online brought tears to my eyes. According to the article entitled -- Her Family Hired me as a Maid for 12 Years but then She Stole my Life and Made it a Disney Movie:

"‘I [Abilene Cooper] just cried and cried after I read the first few pages. In the book, Aibileen has taken her job five months after her son is killed in an accident. My son, Willie, had leukaemia and died when he was 18, in July 1998, three months before I went to work for the Stocketts.
‘I felt the emotions in my heart all over again. Kathryn copied parts of my life and used them without even asking me. .She claims she respects black people but she just ran all over me."

 "The Help" appears to have been an involuntary collaboration between Kathryn Stockett and the family's black maid.   True racial progress will have to await the moment when a work with the popular appeal of "The Help" has both womens' names on the bookcover and movie contract.
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