The Help is a movie based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel of the same name. Directed by Tate Taylor, it tells the story of the relationships between white women and their maids in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi. Shot in vibrant, vivid colors, the visual landscape of the film juxtaposes what was going on beneath the surface of society. In the early days of the Civil Rights movement and in the height of Jim Crow laws, the American South was a far from a pleasant time for the black population. Prohibited from sharing public spaces from their white counterparts, and living under the guise of “separate but equal,” blacks were forced to use separate everything from building entrances and water fountains to hospitals and supermarkets.
In The Help, a young idealistic young woman named Skeeter (the always delightful Emma Stone in one of her more powerful roles to date) has recently returned home from college, liberal and enlightened, and beginning to reintegrate into her old life. Upon attempting to do so, she learns just closed minded and racist her friends are. Her childhood friend and socialite Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) has made it her mission to create a law that forces the black maids to use separate toilets in the homes of their white owners. Enraged by this explicit hypocrisy, that the maids can love and altogether raise the white children but cannot use the same toilet as the rest of the family, the aspiring journalist Skeeter decides to do something about it. Encouraged by an editor from Harper and Row in New York, Skeeter decides to write a book in which the maids are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories. She begins by asking her one of her friends’ maids, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) to tell her story. Initially she is met with refusal out of fear of repercussions. However, as things continue to get worse in Jackson and across the South, Aibileen convinces her friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) and the other maids in town to tell their stories and they begin to come forward.
This film, and the book upon which it’s based, have gotten a lot of criticism from Black groups claiming that it’s not the place of the white people to tell their stories, and that they don’t need white people to help them. Moreover, on the day of the film’s release the association of Black Women Historians claim that the story “distorts, ignores, and trivialized the experience of black domestic workers.” However, it seems that that argument misses the entire point of the story. This film is not meant to be a historical account of every aspect of racism in Jim Crow South. It’s not merely about the self-important white person aiding helpless black people. Rather, the message of the film is a lot more powerful. It’s about people of different races and backgrounds coming together to help each other. Yes, without Skeeter’s enlightenment against the inappropriate ways of her peers it would be unlikely for Aibileen, Minny, and the countless other maids’ stories to be told. However, without the maids agreeing to tell their stories Skeeter would not have been able to find her voice and prove to her mother and the world that she is capable of becoming an important writer, as she so wishes. Celia Foote, the social outcast who employs Minny after Hilly fires her, would never found the confidence to be a good wife and step out from the social pariah-dom that Hilly had forced her into.
In a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, Viola Davis admits to initially having reservations about taking on this role, with similar feelings about the potential one-dimensional depiction of black maids, “because a white woman was writing what I felt was our story, and once again she’s going to get it wrong and she’s only going to skim the surface.” However, “ultimately the story, and what she calls the deep humanity of the characters, won her over. ‘That’s what people bristle at: the maids,” she says. “I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.’” (http://insidemovies.ew.com/2011/08/11/black-women-historians-come-out-against-the-help/). Further, as there are limited roles for strong, adult black women in film today, she was proud to play such a strong, honest character. It’s somewhat ironic that the role which allows her play just that is as a black maid in 1960s Mississippi. Miss Davis, however, brings strength, courage and nobility to her character. There is a quiet grace in the way in which she depicts the proud yet oppressed Aibileen who, despite knowing her place in society, has always strived for a better life and insisted on being more than others told her she could be. Her most touching moments are when she is caring for Mae Mobley, the young daughter of her employer, Elizabeth. The mantra she teaches Mae Mobley is “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” Elizabeth is unable to care for her daughter in the way she deserves and Aibileen steps in and takes on the role of mother to the toddler and teaches her compassion and love, something in which she wishes so dearly could be something the world would show her.
Is seems as though there have been a lot of television shows and films emerge recently about the 1960s (Mad Men, The Help, the upcoming television shows, Pan Am and The Playboy Club). They also all seem to be there to say something about our current society rather than just being a retrospective. The 1960s was, as much as we romanticize and nostalgize about it, was a time of great social unrest and insecurities. It also is a good allegory for our current social and political situation in 2011. Civil Rights for minority groups is still an issue, with conservative politicians thinking they can discriminate against and be heartless towards others just because they are different. Just substitute Gay Rights for Black Rights and you’ve got a very similar situation. Unfortunately in the last 50 years we have not come all that far in our compassion for minority groups, and whether or not The Help meant to highlight that, it definitely succeeds in doing so.
The film offers an important lesson for how we should be treating others in our modern, supposedly enlightened and liberal, society. “Aren’t you tired, Miss Hilly” are words Aibileen spoke to Hilly Holbrook right after her last attempt to assert her dominance over her. In that moment Aibileen might as well have said “Aren’t you tired, Miss Palin” or “Miss Bachman” or any other tea party conservative who, under a fallacious guise of being a patriot, seem to imply that the only way to be loyal to America is by discriminating against others.
Moreover, the message of the film on a number of levels is about pride in oneself despite external forces telling you otherwise. At the heart of the narrative, and the focus of the message, is of course one of civil rights. The black maids find empowerment in telling their stories and realizing they have something to be proud of. They do have a voice even if society at large is telling them otherwise. The characters that don’t find their voices are the ones that suffer, for instance Elizabeth Leefolt never learns to stand up to the overbearing Hilly and therefore loses the one woman in her life who could have taught her compassion and love for her children. Celia Foote learns is empowered by Minny to be a good wife and homemaker for her husband and not to be defined by the way the other women treat her. Even Skeeter learns to step out from under her mother’s criticisms to find her place.
The real lesson of The Help, and one which I think is as important today as it was in the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, is that as a country we need to be united to strengthen ourselves and our communities. The divisive words from pundits and politicians on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum is not helping our society. The only way we can be the strong, empowered nation that has made us great in the past is to put our differences behind us and unite to help each other.