Monday, August 15, 2011

History lessons at the movies?

As a professionally trained historian (with grad degree in the Old Stuff), I love to write historical fiction and read it.
A few nights ago, a professor of American history gave a big slam on prime time TV to the new movie, THE HELP. Her critique was, IMHO, the one of the "More Knowledgeable Academician" telling the lowly world how inaccurate, improper and downright disgraceful the film was to have portrayed that time and place and characters with joy, humor or compassion. Her conclusion was that the film is a gross glossing over of the truth.
Now, first, I must tell you, I read this book months ago. Loved it for its humor, compassion and finely drawn characters. Most of all, I loved it for its portrayal of the times and the milieu. I lived through that time and I remember it well.  And while I lived in a fully integrated city and went to public school in one, I also went to college with women (and men) from the Deep South. I know what my friends thought and how they lived. I listened to them as we watched riots and hosings, the aftermath of the murder of Medgar Evers and Dr. King. I visited the South with my friends, met their parents and siblings. And while I am not a professional historian of slavery in America, I can say all of the following with certitude:
1. No book, non-fiction or fiction, can portray the total truth of a period or a people.
2. One book, non-fiction or fiction, can explore only one angle, hopefully, well.
3. One author, especially a fiction author, does not aspire to write the definitive picture of a person, place or period.  (If she does, she'll never finish that book.)
4. The author's job is to pick one premise, one theme and one or two morals of the story. If she's doing her job well, she's going to use the best of her talents to accomplish that limited goal.
5. This author chose to portray a group of white women and a group of black women whose intertwining relationships were representative of a culture and a period.
I think she accomplished her goal well.
If she didn't accomplish this TV historian's goal well, she didn't have to.
And clearly, since THE HELP continues to strike a chord in hundreds of thousands of people who have read and continue to read it--and smile and laugh and shake their heads and feel the pain of those characters--the author did her job.
That is the only thing she was supposed to do.
The only job any author of fiction has or should.


  1. Wonderful post Cerise! As a lover of history myself I'm bothered by the desire some academics have of wanting complicated human interactions to be simple political statements. When human beings are involved it's rarely simple and straight forward. Anything that opens up dialog and encourages people to add to the human data base in the present is a good thing that helps us all.
    XXOO Kat

  2. I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but if it isn't claiming to be a completely factual account of actual historical events, then an historian shouldn't be criticizing it. It is a fact, however, that throughout history in the worst of times, human realtionships can form and flourish in spite of politics and prejudices.


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