The Help is cleaning up at the box office, sparking controversy along the way. It has skyrocketed to No. 1 ahead of all those brain-dead action flicks, just as the novel by Kathryn Stockett, on which it is based, has been riding the bestseller lists in some 35 countries since its 2009 release.
It’s the story – both moving and hilarious – that reels us in. Set in Jackson, Miss., just as the civil-rights movement was heating up, it focuses on a group of beleaguered black maids, and the privileged young white society woman who convinces them to tell their stories in a scandalous book.
On the night I went to see it – in a packed theatre, with the seats filled mainly by women – I knew I wasn’t supposed to like it. After all, serious movie critics and even some friends had told me it was “emotionally manipulative” and nothing more than, as Dana Stevens of Slate put it, “a Barbie Band-Aid on the still-raw world of race relations in America.”
African American filmmaker Nelson George, writing in The New York Times, laments the movie’s lack of nuance and also accuses Ms. Stockett, a white Southern writer, of “creating a false sense of authenticity” by speaking in the maids’ voices throughout her book, a charge I find troubling. Writers can and should tell a story in any voice they want; the only way they should be judged is whether that voice is persuasive and compelling.
There are two main problems with The Help. The first is that dignity and enlightenment are brought to these black women by a callow white woman, Skeeter Phelan (played by Emma Stone), a Junior Leaguer aching to blow past the rigidly scripted life her mama has in mind for her (marriage, bridge group, devilled eggs and managing her own help) and live an authentic life as a writer. Why does there always have to be a white saviour?
And the second issue is that the civil-rights movement is only a backdrop to this domestic drama. You get glimpses of the news reports of the assassination of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, and in one powerful scene, a sense of the pervasive fear as one main character, Aibileen Clark, a middle-aged maid filled with sorrow, anger and love, and played to subtle perfection by the great Viola Davis, is kicked off a bus after the murder of a black man, and runs home through the night streets, terrified.
But what the movie really shows is that institutionalized racism, on a personal level, is about an avalanche of small moments of humiliation and fear. There’s a lot of talk about toilets. The circle of young white mothers (you might call them Mean Racist Girls) who were once raised by black maids, have repressed their love and dependence on them and instead have signed on to The Home Help Sanitation Initiative, which means building separate bathrooms for the help because “everyone knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do.”
For younger moviegoers today, raised on Tyler Perry and Beyoncé, hip hop and even Barack Obama, this could either be a complete disconnect or a moment of profound connection.
I called the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which mounts a pretty good interactive civil-rights display and asked if anyone cared to comment on what – if anything – a movie like The Help can contribute to the ongoing dialogue about race relations in America.
I eventually found my way to Edna Sims, who does public relations for a travelling museum exhibit called Freedom’s Sisters, which honours such women as Harriet Tubman and Coretta Scott King.
“I loved the movie,” said Ms. Sims, “I love it that Skeeter asks these women ‘How does it feel to be you?’ But call my sister Wilhelmina in New York, she’s more articulate than I am.”
Her sister, a retired writer, who said she has worked on among other projects, Spike Lee’s movies, also effusively praised the movie.
Wilhelmina Sims, born in 1952, described how she grew up comfortably in the African-American middle class in Detroit, but nonetheless participated in the civil-rights movement, as one of the first black students at a previously all white school.
She said she hoped The Help would spark “a different kind of discussion and awareness” about the past.
It’s an interesting summer for this “emotionally manipulative” movie to be released. Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, who has spent some of his last three years batting back accusations that he isn’t legitimate, is starting his re-election campaign and is facing an increasingly bigoted backlash.
The racist ugliness about Obama is out there, it’s real, it’s palpable. A cashier at a highway service centre in Ontario told me this summer she was shocked when an American couple came in, and the man seemed affronted by the price of something. “I told him unfortunately his dollar wasn’t worth as much as ours and you know what he said in a loud voice?” she told me. “That’s because we have a friggin’ [N-word]for President.”
In The Help, Skeeter calls her New York editor to report progress on her tell-all book about the maids. “Write it and write it fast,” says the editor, “before this whole civil-rights thing blows over.” That was in 1962.
I’m glad The Help is packing them in. Enlightenment rarely comes in perfect packages.