Friday, August 12, 2011

The Help

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert review -

The Help (directed and screenplay written by Tate Taylor based on the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett) is a story about the women of Jackson, Mississippi in 1963 near the end of the first half of the Civil Rights Movement.  There were references to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s March on Washington D.C. (as something about to take place / just having taken place) as well as a scene with a whole household – white family and “its” black help watching the funeral of John F. Kennedy on a “new” (now ancient) television.

It is important to understand that neither the book nor the movie was intended to be a documentary but rather to be historical fiction, seeking to give to readers/the audience a sense of the life of a relatively minor, arguably “quaint” though deeply troubled state capital in the Deep South of the time.  In this Kathryn Stocket follows a long, storied tradition of historical fiction writing coming from women of the South that would make Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone With the Wind and Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird proud. 

As I write this, it is clear to me that who is sill missing to complete this pantheon of women writing about the South would be a work written by a black woman reaching the acclaim of these three as yet white women, who nonetheless have pushed the cause of humanizing African-Americans in the larger American culture.  Margaret Mitchell arguably began this process as she humanized the various black servants working on the plantations of the Old South (even as she did not outright condemn slavery).  Harper Lee further humanized a black victim of false accusation who ended up being lynched (though the lynching itself was not portrayed).  Kathryn Stocket chose to write a fascinating book from the perspectives of the black maids of Jackson (though the story still passed through her pen).

In each case, these were steps that on one hand could be portrayed as large.  And yet on the other hand seem painfully small.  Perhaps a black woman will one day complete this cycle of writing about the Old South.  Or perhaps, the subject itself may not prove to be altogether interesting to African American women writers of today/the future (or fraught with other dangers, such as _no matter_ how good a black writer’s book/novel may be, it may not get the kind of attention that a better connected / still more "mainstream" white writer would receive) who may prefer writing about other pressing challenges.  In this regard, please check the ADDENDUM to this Review (below) for the link to the statement and suggestions of the Association of Black Women Historians with regard to this book/film and general topic of African American domestic workers in the pre-Civil Rights era South or just click here.

It is also important to understand the book as historically based fiction rather than documentary because the characters in the story do feel more like “types” than actual people.  The characters inhabiting the universe of the novel/movie _are_ important but the viewer will have no trouble identifying who the people who’re supposed to be sympathetic are and who we’re supposed to despise.  So it’s a morality tale stocked at times with ringers.  But it is well done and perhaps pertinent to our own time.

The specific hornet’s nest that The Help may kick-up is the identification of Hilly Holbrook (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) as the movie’s “Queen Bee” chief villain.  To be sure, Hilly mistreats not only her “help,” Mimmy Jackson (played by Octavia Spenser) who she fires after Minny refused to go outside to use the “help’s bathroom” during a tornado but used the house bathroom instead, as well as the woman who replaced her ostensibly for “stealing” (but the story’s more complicated that than), Hilly _also_ makes sure to keep her white-women “friends” in their places as well.  She keeps the writer of the story, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phalan (played by Emma Stone) off balance (who was the only one of this circle of white women to have gone to college – Ole Miss’) by constantly reminding her in one way or another that, college grad though she may be, she’s the only one of their friends who still wasn’t married.  And Hilly’s particularly vicious to a sweet, but “out of her depth” woman “with a white trash background” who had married one of Hilly’s old boyfriends.  She also pressures subservient “friend” Celia Foote (played by Jessica Chastain) to build a bathroom for her maid (and the movie’s narrator) Aibileen Clark (played by Viola Davis) because _she_ does not want to use a bathroom that could have been used by a black person.

In other circumstances, the prominence of Hilly’s “Queen Bee” character as the story’s chief villain could be appalling.  Yet, we do live in a time when we have two _snarling_ former beauty queens Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann becoming powerful fixtures on our national political scene, arguably _nationalizing_ the power-dynamics played-out in Jackson, Mississippi in this story.  Indeed, the two, Palin and Bachmann, have come to have a hate-filled fixation on bringing down our nation's (first) African-American President Barack Obama. Say what one may about his politics (note that abortion aside, I tend to agree with him on _just about everything else_) like _most_ of the black “help” in the movie, notably Aibileen (Viola Davis' character), Obama is intelligent, measured and _calm_.

So while the movie is about Jackson, Mississippi of the 1960s, it is also about our time.  For “those who have eyes, see...”


I wish to add here an Open Statement to the Fans of "The Help" by the Association of Black Women Historians.  Included at the end of the statement is a _suggested reading list_ of books, fiction and non-fiction, that address the realities of black domestic workers in the Pre-Civil Rights Era South.

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