'The Help:' Rebirth of a painful genre

Kim McLarin | 8/24/2011, 1:45 p.m.

For two years I managed to avoid reading “The Help.”  

I didn’t read it because I didn’t need to. Whenever hordes of white women of casual acquaintance start coming up to me at cocktail parties or on the street and grasping my hand and telling me that I have to read this “wonderful” new book I can safely assume several things:

One — The book will be “about race.”

Two — It will involve white people saving black people or, rather, appearing to save black people while really being spiritually and morally redeemed themselves.

Three — It will in no way make white readers uncomfortable about the complicated subject of race in America.

Four — It will make me ill.

From past experiences, I’ve learned that the best course of action for me whenever one of these soft bombs oozes over America is to simply opt out.

I don’t tell others not to read/see these works, or suggest how these works might influence them. I try to keep silent when folks gush about how wonderful they are. I simply agree to disagree.

I bite my tongue when someone suggests that such works “at least gets people talking about race” — as if talking about race in the soft, rose-colored, deeply artificial glow of such books and movies is of any real benefit.

I did all of this and was content, until last month, when my friend Callie Crossley asked me to appear on her radio show on WGBH to discuss the cultural phenomenon the book has apparently unleashed. In other words, the invitation meant that I had to engage the beast.

Girding my loins, I borrowed a copy from a friend and hunkered down. Then I went to the movie of the same name. Let me just say this: Somebody owes me those precious hours of my life back. I’ll take payment in gold.

Let’s dispense with the nonsense first. Does the author, Kathryn Stockette, have “the right” to create a story about black people and written partially in the voices of black characters? Of course she does. Writers have the right to inhabit the minds of any character they choose, libel laws notwithstanding. Besides, this is America; the right of white people to exploit black people for fun and profit is written in the Constitution, I believe. Last time I checked, anyway.

Am I criticizing or judging the black actors who participated in the movie version? No. Viola Davis is amazing; I’d watch her read the phone book and applaud and certainly she has a right to accept any role she desires to play.

I would only note that 71 years ago years ago, when Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar, it was also for playing a maid. McDaniel, beating back criticism for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With The Wind,” said, “I’d rather play a maid than be a maid.” Are they the only options of our fine actors still today?