The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute Proverbs 31:8
Considerable controversy has erupted around Kathryn Stockett’s best selling The Help, a novel set in 1963-64 Jackson, Mississippi about three women. Recent college graduate Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a member of upper crust society apparently has been liberalized by her out of state education and sets out to convince two “colored” maids to reveal to her their experiences for a proposed book. Aibileen (Viola Davis) and her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), well aware of the danger to themselves and their families, are two maids that are extremely reluctant at first to cooperate, but slowly come around.
With filmmaker Tate Taylor’s adaptation being released there is even more criticism of the work. Having been enamored of the novel, and only a little disappointed at the film because of its prettied up ending, I had half-completed a review full of praise for the work that largely ignored the criticism. Then I saw Tulane Professor Melissa Harris Perry’s savaging of the film on Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word. Full of admiration for her insightful remarks on other subjects when she was a frequent guest of both Mr. O’Donnell’s and of “The Rachel Madow Show,” I felt it necessary to lay aside what I had written and start over.
The criticism from others that a white woman ought not to be writing about the black experience can easily be dismissed because it ignores an author’s imagination and ability to emphasize with someone of a different sex, color or culture. How poorer we would have been if Tolstoy had not written Anna Karenina or Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird merely because they were not of the same sex as their protagonists!
Prof. Perry’s charge that the story gives a false picture of history and trivializes the Civil Rights struggle is a more serious charge, one that drew me up short because over 40 years ago I participated in a small way in that struggle, traveling in 1964 with a friend to volunteer for the Mississippi Summer Project sponsored by a coalition of civil rights organizations known as COFO. The film’s Aibileen and Minny reminded me of some of the black women I met back then. Upon first meeting they were very deferential to us as whites, but when they learned that we were with the Movement, their servile demeanor vanished. We learned the truth of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem: “WE wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay to human guile;” The book and film gets this right, especially in its depiction of Aibileen who cannot but help overhear the racist remarks of the gossipy white ladies playing bridge while she serves them refreshments. Aibileen works for Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), a shallow woman who avoids caring for her toddler daughter whom she regards as too chubby to be “adorable.” To counter the mother’s neglect, Aibileen daily looks into face of little Mae Mabley (Elinor and Emma Henley) and tells her that she is a good and worthy person. Left out, unfortunately, are the little anti-racist stories that she tells the child in the hope that they will undermine the racism fed to her by her parents and society. (I love the name of the hero in one of them, a sci-fi tale, Martian Luther King!) During a bridge party at Elizabeth’s home Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) does not care if the maid overhears her obsessing aloud that every white home should be required to have a separate bathroom for “the help” to avoid the danger of contamination.
Aibileen ignores the slights and insults of Hilly, whereas her short-tempered friend Minny is frequently out of work because she talks back. How she gets even with Hilly for firing her results in an amusing episode that makes Miss Jane Pittman’s spitting into ar spiteful white woman’s cup of water seem almost benevolent.
Prof. Perry stated that the novel/film trivializes and falsified the history of the Civil Rights movement is partly based on what she regards as the too brief depiction of the news of the murder in Jackson of NAACP President Medgar Evers. There is some basis for this charge, and even more so, I felt in that no mention whatever is made of the preparation by the black community for COFO’s “Mississippi Summer Project.” The publication of the book, also called The Help, takes place sometime in the first half of 1964, so the two events are contemporaneous. The coming to the state of almost a thousand white college students, ministers, lawyers, teachers, and doctors was major news in and out of Mississippi. The state’s media was full of apocalyptic articles about this “invasion,” and COFO’s headquarters (located appropriately on Jackson’s Lynch Street) was frequently the target of bricks and a bomb. And yet none of this was mentioned in the book or the film.
(Spoiler follows) I was also, as mentioned earlier, disappointed that the film depicts Skeeter’s racist mother as mellowing and, upon her daughter’s leaving for a publishing job in NYC, coming over to her side and declaring how proud she is of what she has done. Giving in to the desire for a happy ending was a bit of a betrayal of the book and lessened the sense of the cross born by so many whites who found themselves cut off from their families when they broke free of the bonds of racism. This “cross” is better depicted in an earlier film about a maid and her employer, the beautifully understated The Long Walk Home.
The Help is similar to Driving Miss Daisy in that each is a work by a white person who wants us to feel good about race relations. The latter came out in 1989, the same year in which Spike Lee’s far darker Do the Right Thing was released. Just as Lee’s film gave a truer picture of race relations in America, so does the cable film Freedom Song (partially produced by its star Danny Glover) give a fuller picture of the cost for Mississippi blacks of the struggle for equal rights.
Nonetheless The Help is well worth seeing and discussing. Despite its flaws, the story is filled with moments of grace and of confrontation. Although the character of Hilly is flat, with few if any redeeming traits revealed, that of Aibileen and Minny is shown in depth. The charge that this is another film in which a white person must “save” the blacks is a bit unfair, in that sometimes the oppressed do accept their situation with little thought of changing things until someone or some event from the outside leads them to see their situation in a different light or perspective. On the last night in Mississippi of my friend and myself two elderly ladies came up to us after the freedom rally. One said, “We thank God that y’all came down here and opened our eyes. Now we see tha
t we don’t have to put up with things the way they are.” The other said, “I might not live to see it, but my children and granchilren will see the day of freedom.” A major theme in the book that survived the transformation into film is the role of the church. Although Hilly claims to be a “Christian,” we never see her or Skeeter attending church, but we certainly see that Aibileen and Minny are active church members. The brief portion of their pastor’s sermon shown is a fine summation of Dr. King’s non-violence ethic, and the celebration at church of the publication of the maids’ book is a beautiful moment of solidarity. Flawed or not, The Help can be the occasion for looking back to see where we were as a nation, how far we have come, and what yet remains to be done to arrive at Dr. King’s “the beloved society.”
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