Adams: 'The Help' omits painful truths

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in a scene from "The Help." Photo Credit: AP Photo/Disney

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Janus Adams is an author, historian and social commentator.

There's something to be said for the timing of this month's release of "The Help," the film based on the best-selling book.

Today, Women's Equality Day, is the 91st anniversary of the constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. Sunday is the 48th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and this week the King National Memorial, the first tribute on the Mall to a non-president and an African-American, opened to the public. The still-unfinished business of those two themes drives "The Help."

The story takes place in the early '60s, when comfortable homes hired black women as mammies -- or, in more polite parlance, as "the help." The South is erupting in violent resistance to the Civil Rights movement, as an aspiring young white writer breaks rank with her bridge-club peers to tell the truth of their segregated lifestyle from the perspective of "the help" they oppress.

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That's the conceit of the story -- and of its author, Kathryn Stockett, who purports to bridge the divide of race, class and social order. That the film comes to the screen now seems hardly a coincidence. Despite the majority that elected the first African-American president, a minority -- driven by the dictum, "Obama must fail" -- wreaks perpetual political havoc. The country is rife with revisionism. Congress opened session under its new Republican leadership this year with a reading of the Constitution that expunged all mention of slavery from the text. Slaveholding Founding Fathers have been fallaciously recast as slavery fighters.

As the writer of histories of African-American women and the Civil Rights era, I was prepared to dislike the film. The book's author is a white southerner writing for black women, so I knew that neither the book nor the film would tell the story as I knew it from serious research and personal experience. There are other books that have told the story more authentically -- like Anne Moody's 1968 memoir, "Coming of Age in Mississippi," or Alice Childress' 1956 classic, "Like One of the Family."

And friends both black and white have confirmed that had we expected the movie to tell the truth -- the whole truth -- we probably wouldn't have seen it, because of the pain and the promises we fought for, still unfulfilled. Perhaps the reason is best expressed in our responses to one of the story's most poignant relationships. There is a mantra the black lead, the maid, Aibileen, recites to her white charge: "You is kind. You is smart. You is important."

No such thing is ever said to a black child in Stockett's telling -- a fact untrue to life in that era, when the children's crusade of school desegregation was making martyrs from kindergarten through college, with the support and admiration of African-Americans nationwide.

But, beyond that is the way the scene makes women feel. The white women I've spoken to experience the scene as a fine depiction of the humanity that triumphs against the odds. The black women experience it as a painful squandering of the humanity of generations of their foremothers who raised centuries of children who would then be trained to disrespect them.

Perhaps, we can't handle the truth right now. We're still living it, and it hurts too much. On this Women's Equality Day, there are still many homes where privileged white women employ women black and brown to tend their babies -- women conscripted by the inequality of options open to them.

We know this truth, too: Few of the black actresses portraying maids in "The Help" will be offered roles as anything but. We haven't really come that far from 1939, when Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in "Gone With the Wind," lamented, "I'd rather be paid $1,500 a week to play a maid, than $15 to be one."

That too, is the underlying story of "The Help" -- one in which the writer goes on to a great career, and the maids remain women with few options.

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