Materialism and "The Help"
Appearances are everything to Hilly and her covey of similarly self-interested wealthy, white women, because appearances are all they really have. The shocking revelation contained in the housekeepers' book isn't that racism runs rampant in Jackson society. It's that Jackson society is a sham.
The white women in Jackson are nothing without their housekeepers. They cannot cook. They cannot clean. They cannot take care of their children. More so, even with those responsibilities shoved off on their housekeepers, The Help demonstrates that the women cannot maintain their way of life, the deeper irony being that the oppressors (the white women) are themselves oppressed by the culture of Materialism.
Even the men in The Help's world are victims of this culture. Where are the men in this story? Conspicuously absent. The white men are always working, taken from their loved ones by the need to provide the lavish lifestyle they all "enjoy." The black men are absent as well, and the few who are discussed are mentioned in the context of abuse, having had no other outlet for their anger than to lash out against the only people they have power over—their wives and children. The black women are indeed at the bottom of this materialistic pyramid of power. Being at the bottom, they form the foundation for the unjust system. When they rebel, everything above them begins to crumble.
The Help doesn't resolve. Aibileen and one of the other housekeepers do begin to find some freedom, but there is clearly a long road ahead for everyone involved in the story. This is presented visually in the film's closing shot.
The scenes I found most poignant, though, were a scene in which Aibileen's friend and co-conspirator Minnie is presented with a feast by her employers and an immediately following scene in which Aibileen's church community applauds her and the risk she has taken to tell her story. I was struck then with the conviction that all women deserve a feast, and all women deserve applause for what they have done both to sustain us and to set us free.
The Help isn't a "true" story in that the events it portrays did not happen in history, but it is true in that it tells us the truth about the world we inhabit now. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s essentially ended institutionalized racism in the United States, but Materialism still rears its ugly head. As in the '60s, our world will begin to change for the better when the oppressed begin to shake off the yoke of their oppressors, forcing the oppressors to take note of the yokes placed upon them by the system itself. I pray God gives us more truth-tellers like Aibileen to help begin to set us free.
Elijah Davidson is the Co-Director of Reel Spirituality at Fuller Seminary's Brehm Center for theology, arts and culture. Follow his reflections via Twitter, or at the Brehm Center blog and the Reel Spirituality website.