I saw “The Help” at a multiplex in Rome, Georgia, where my mother lives, not far from the Alabama border. She treated my wife, our thirteen-year-old son and me. Several of her friends also attended – women in their sixties and seventies. A couple, like my mother, came of age in the Jim Crow South. Also like my mother, they’d grown up in a house with a maid who was expected to use different silverware and crockery. In my mother’s case, the maid even had her own primitive toilet. They look back on these facts with considerable discomfort, not least because when they were very young, it seemed “normal” and the maids did, in fact, seem “part of the family.”
The theater was pretty full with mostly white women of or near their age, with a few African American women in the mix. As a post-Boomer, post-Civil Rights Act white guy, I was in a distinct minority.
When the movie was over, we stood outside as the crowd dispersed into the sultry night. We chatted about race, history, whether or not the movie got it right. My mom readily admitted that while she liked it, some of it made her uncomfortable; she struggled to reconcile how her pre-liberated self did not see and protest the institutional racism. It is hard for me to imagine her being complacent, as my life began and flowered in the wake of her mid-sixties liberation.
I’d gone in not knowing what to expect, as my friends who’d read the book and/or saw the movie hit me with widely divergent reviews. One had thrown the book across the room because it put a Dylan song in a scene set a couple years before the song came out. (Similiarly, Johnny Cash and June Carter’s version of “Jackson” is incorporated in an early scene that takes place seven years before their version of that song was released. They almost lost me there.) Another friend consumed most of “The Help” on our couch and said it was the best book she’d read all year. My wife had interviewed Mary J. Blige, whose aunt was a maid and who wrote and sings the hell out of the theme song (a bit saccharine for my taste) and she loves the film. Looking at the media frenzy since the movie opened, that love-it-or-hate-it response is not letting up.
Speaking for myself, I’m glad I saw it and there was lots to enjoy – especially Viola Davis’s truly astounding portrayal of Aibilene (hello, Oscar). But it also got on my nerves and disappointed me (and not just because of the anachronistic songs). For one thing, except for Davis’s work, it is a movie mostly of broad strokes, even occasional Apatow-esque slapstick. In my experience of being raised among – and sometimes even by – racists, the lingering conflict in my heart comes not only from how evil and small-minded these people were, but from how loving and kind they also could be. I realize, in retrospect, that these types of racists were – and remain – the most dangerous, largely because of their insidiousness. In “The Help,” the baddies (a mesmerizingly villainous Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, Sorority Sister from Hell) are almost devoid of humanity, which, I think, ultimately reinforces the polarization that racism seeks.
I can see why some feel dismay at the “white man’s (woman’s) burden” aspect; there is validity to the criticism that the movie is yet another about black folks who don’t progress until a white person steps up and takes a risk. (“The Blind Side,” “Mississippi Burning,” “To Kill A Mockingbird.”) I get that. The maids also help Skeeter (a very engaging Emma Stone, all eyebrows and difficult hair) in that their stories, which she writes down and sends to Manhattan editor Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen) kickstart Skeeter’s writing career. So there’s some quid pro quo, but it still feels like a tired trope. And the maids’ risks are considerably greater than Skeeter’s. Still, I went from being sucked in to feeling anxious and manipulated to being sucked back in, usually by the stellar performances. I mean, some are crazy good.
I was lucky to see “The Help” with women who had been there. Talk to a Liberated Southern Woman who went from cluelessness to awakening to rage to action (or some who wish they’d been more active) and you will understand why this movie is THE buzz flick of the summer instead of, say, Captain America. For them, a large part of the appeal, of course, is in Skeeter; when faced with injustice, Skeeter behaves as they wish they had, and more importantly, when they wish they had. My mom, for instance, turned her back on her decidedly racist upbringing, campaigning for (black Atlanta Congressman and eventual mayor) Andrew Young, whose sign was defaced on our lawn in 1970. She was in the thick of it. I am proud of her. Still, she wishes she’d done more and done it earlier and the movie does exploit that. She also wishes that, a la Skeeter, she could go back and redeem her own mother from racism. (That was overkill for me, a real “ABC Afterschool Special” feeling and not in a good way.) So while the criticism that it’s a “white person’s fable” has some tread, that doesn’t mean, as some heated critics claim, that a white person fantasizing that he/she is Skeeter is a deluded, ineffectual Part of The Problem.
The reaction to “The Help” illustrates that, even though we have a black man in the White House, we’ve not come as far as we think, but thanks to social media, we can have extended conversations about how to approach and/or rectify this. Clearly, there is a hunger for the story of the black American experience to be told in a new way, preferably by black people. Frankly, I’m glad it’s all being bandied about; it is safe to say it has generated more lively talk on the subject than any movie since “Do The Right Thing.” Many teaching moments with my son, who will see a different kind of storytelling when we watch that flick and “Malcolm X”. As for the particular experience of black women as told by black women, it’s safe to say that, sadly, Hollywood hasn’t made that particular leap. Yet. Perhaps “The Green Berets” had to come before, say, “Saving Private Ryan.”
Today, while driving out of the Deep South, my wife and son and I scanned the Internet via my iPhone, reading a couple pans (always fun) and discussing “The Help” and the various reactions. It was the longest discussion on race and on criticism we’ve ever had. We did not always agree. My favorite review was from Salon, posted on Facebook by my cousin. And finally, Ebert’s own review is pretty succinct. He opined thus: [“The Help” is] “a good film… a story that deals with pain but doesn’t care to be that painful.”
There are quite a few who say that’s not good enough. But for me, it’s a start. And the cynical-sounding irony is this: Once “The Help” sweeps the Oscars, that excruciating, no-punches-pulled, hardcore feminist, beautifully agonizing, complex version of the great shame of American racism will, indeed, find its way to the public. I hope I get to see that one in the Deep South, too.