Friday, October 28, 2011

The Help

In The Help (2011; dir. Tate Taylor) we experience the big events of the early 1960s indirectly-- through news reports about the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the Kennedy assassination of 1963. An exception is the murder of Medgar Evers—since the film is set in Jackson, characters learn of the murder on the street and from friends. This story of how oppressed black women working menial jobs find a voice to tell their stories, to contribute in their own way to the struggle for equal rights, is in reality a small chapter in a much larger narrative.

I watched this film with a mostly white audience. A few black people were present, but not many. My suspicion is that the readers who made the book a best seller, and viewers who made the film a commercial success, were mostly white. Black viewers will have to explain their reactions to the film. I suspect many may have enjoyed it, but that the scenes of black women working as maids for white families who at worst were racist and cruel caused discomfort. As a white viewer, I felt discomfort over how the women were treated, over the circumscription of their lives—this is a reaction the film intended. Another source of discomfort came from the fact that I lived through the times this film portrayed. I wanted to resist this portrayal of the middle-class white South, in part because I knew it was accurate.

Early in my life my family lived in an old duplex in College Park, Georgia. My father was struggling to make a start in the florist business. My mother was raising children. They were not wealthy. Our maid was a woman named Mary Lou. She lived a little more than a mile from our house, and every morning she would walk to work. I’d see her pass the side window as she headed towards the backdoor. We paid her two dollars a day at first. Eventually we raised her pay to five dollars. She worked for us for twenty years. My father helped her buy a house, a run-down wooden frame on an unpaved road where she and some of the other black residents of College Park citizens lived.

This was the segregated South we were growing up in, though as children we at first knew nothing of it. It never occurred to us to question the status quo or even to know what it was. It was just for us life. Gradually, as I grew older, I became aware of a racial divide. I heard my grandmother promising me that if integration came to the schools of Georgia and they shut down as they did in Arkansas, she would have school for us in our own house. I heard my grandfather promise to wash her mouth out with soap if she kept using a particular word that even then was regarded as impolite. I heard my father express his dislike for Sammy Davis Junior and his marriage to a white woman. I heard conversations among my friends and their parents. In general, my parents were inhabitants of their time and their place, but their opinions and manners of speech were moderate and moderating. My mother regarded the white mobs that attacked the Freedom Riders in 1961 as troublemakers, and I remember clearly her sadness over the murders of the four children in Birmingham, Alabama.

By the standards of the time we treated Mary Lou well. She kept good care of us children, seemed to love and enjoy us. But how can I know for sure? Like the maids in The Help, Mary Lou wore a uniform to work. We had a few other maids during my childhood. I remember only one of them well. When one maid left and another came to work, it did not matter much to us children. We did not care much about how these women felt about coming to work for our family. Some of them we treated badly—not in the same way as the racist woman in The Help, but in the way that four or five young children can run amuck and make life difficult for a caretaker. Mary Lou usually managed to maintain control and when she didn’t, she would moan, “I’m sick and tired.” This is the statement I can remember her making repeatedly. As she grew older, we began picking her up and taking her home each day. One day on the way to our house, several of us children quarreled, and Mary Lou moaned, “I’m already sick and tired.” That mantric refrain probably carried more meaning and weight than we could have known. When she was too old to work any longer, we occasionally visited her (at first) or talked by phone. Eventually our visits and phone calls for the most part ended.

In The Help the white character Skeeter Phelan provides the necessary entry to the world of the maids. Skeeter is a sort of nonconformist to begin with. She’s not noted as a beauty (despite the fact that she’s played by Emma Stone). She wants a career as a journalist, a writer, while most of her friends from high school are either already married or planning to be. And while her friends treat her as a member of their group, they also look at her as different. Skeeter’s first attempt at publishing was rejected by a northern editor, and she gets the idea that she ought to write about what she knows. So, ironically, she decides to interview maids to discover how they think and what it is like to be who they are. The first woman she talks to, Aibileen (Viola Davis), agrees to talk because she sees it as her small contribution to the movement. In fact, Aibileen wants to write her stories down for Skeeter rather than tell them out loud. Minnie, known for her careless tongue, is the next woman who agrees to talk. After the Medgar Evers murder, many women decide they are ready to talk. Although Skeeter is the conduit through which these women convey their experiences to the white viewers (and readers through the fictional book The Help that Skeeter goes on to write anonymously), the stories they tell are their own. The problem is that we hear only a few details of those stories. The film itself is anecdotal.

Even though the black woman are talking (and writing) of their experiences, it is a young white woman who records their stories and puts them in a book. Obviously there were limited ways for unlettered Southern black women in the early 1960s to get their stories into print. But it’s nonetheless true that The Help is another film about the black struggle for freedom told through a white person’s perspective.

By recording their stories Skeeter engages in her own struggle for a voice as a writer and an individual. Like the black women she talks to, she faces limited choices. Not only does everyone around her expect her to look for and find a husband, they are concerned that she may fail to do so. Marriage is fate, in her world. Geography is fate too. The citizens of Jackson white and black have carefully defined, predefined roles. They have carefully prescribed ways of thinking too. Allegiance to the South, which means allegiance to the codes of racial separatism and white supremacy, is a given for the white citizens of Jackson. When Skeeter begins to speak and act in a way that suggests she may not honor these codes, she provokes suspicion and, ultimately, castigation.

The Help makes clear that racism is not simply revulsion against a particular skin color. As the character of Celia Foote reveals (Jessica Chastain) it’s also a matter of social and economic class. Celia is the product of a poor white family, a “poor white trash” family. She doesn’t know how to act or speak in a way that would admit her to the circles of most of the white women in this film, and even if she did her lower class origins (not to mention her marriage to the one-time boyfriend of Hilly Holbrook) would probably leave her excluded. She’s an outcast, and her exclusion becomes one basis for her friendship with Minnie. The film is clear as to how we’re to regard Celia—she’s simple but good, misguided and errant but teachable. It’s therefore no surprise that she holds few assumptions about race. She welcomes Minnie into her home, talks freely with her, eats at the same table, and in general extends friendship. I must say that lower-class whites in 1963 were as racist as anyone else. If Celia is somehow supposed to suggest that coming out of poverty cures one of racism, then we have a problem in logic and fact—the middle-class Southern white folks in this film make that clear. Celia is a rare exception to the rule of early 1960s Jackson, MS, and the rest of the American South. The film absolves her of racism in order to make clear that she suffers from prejudice herself. Such distinctions were never so simple.

After Hilly fires Minnie, accusing her of theft, she becomes a social pariah. No one will hire her. She manages to find work with Celia, who along with her husband promises her a job for as long as she wants it. Aibileen also becomes a social outcast when her involvement with the interviews becomes known—Hilly makes sure that it does. Skeeter, of course, can leave Jackson and go to New York and have her career in publishing. Her book on the stories of the black woman not only lands her a best seller but also a job as an assistant editor for a New York publisher. Her mother is dying, so she has little left in Jackson to stay behind for. Aibileen is not so fortunate. She has to live in Jackson, and every white family that Hilly talks to will have nothing to do with her. Although she was Skeeter’s entrance into the world of the black women in the film, she’s left alone in the end with dim prospects.

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