'The Help'— South Facing

Watching a movie about the South that I grew up in (the movie is set in the period of the early sixties leading up to the Civil Rights movement and the deaths of JFK and Medger Evers)  was in various ways like nearly being hit by a car—- it was too close for comfort. Much too close to the bone.  And it was not just any sort of movie, it was a powerful movie—- to say the least.  It dredged up so many memories and miseries, painful memories, and all too real miseries.  It is hard to believe that anyone who grew up when and where the ugly face of racism was so palpable and tangible could ever think that human beings are not fallen  creatures.  And yet in the midst of all that ugliness, there was also grace, and compassion, and humanity, and charity, and even forgiveness.  And even real Christianity— talk about amazing grace.  The Old South died hard,  and in some quarters it has not died yet.  So as for all the clueless reviewers who tried to say— ‘what, that old theme again?  Do we have to dredge up those old stereotypes yet again?’   I can only say—- Have you been paying attention recently to the rhetoric that has been directed against Hispanics in this country?  Racism is like the energizer bunny– it just finds a new object to despise, and keeps going and going and going.   But I digress.
Let start with a few facts.  By summer standards and most standards, this is a longish movie at two hours and seventeen minutes.  Not Gone with the Wind long, but by summer movie standards longer than the average movie.  And yet the movie has excellent pace.  It focuses on the true story of a young white lady growing up in Jackson Ms. in the early 60s,  going to ole Miss, coming home, and wanting to go into journalism or writing as a career, at a time when most Southern women were house wives, or house wife wannabes.
Skeeter, like so many white children of privilege had grown up being raised mostly ‘by the help’  (hence the title of the movie)  by which was meant,  African American women who cooked, cleaned, took care of the children, and in many cases became the de facto ‘Mommas of those children.  While I did not grow up with such an arrangement, I certainly knew plenty of families in High Point N.C. who had ‘hired help’.  Ours was a furniture town on the rise, and ‘the help’ were everywhere to be found— doing all the dirty work, for less than minimum wage in many cases.  Not that minimum wage was a living wage anyway.  My first real job in N.C. working at the Guildford Dairy bar  paid the princely sum of $1.25 a hour plus all the ice cream I could eat.  In one sense, they lost on that deal.  I gained twenty pounds that summer.   But I had met the Minnies and the Abileens of High Point when I got invited to a rich person’s house.
That scene in the movie with the bridge club was really too close for comfort—- I used to be the fill in at the bridge table for the bridge club when it was hosted by my dear old Mom.  Those ladies in the movie looked exactly like people I remember.    In short, this movie was not trite, but rather true, painfully accurate down to the last detail.  I am thankful to God those days are mostly gone now.
This movie has a remarkable cast of both old familiar faces (Sissy Spacek as a woman with the onset of dementia, Mary Steenburgen as a rich woman in town,  Alison Janney as Skeeter’s Mom whose phony Southern accent does get better as the movie goes on, but at the outset I thought— not good casting), and newcomers (Emma Stone as Skeeter), but the real stars of the movie are ‘the Help’— particularly Viola Davis as Abileen, and Octavia Spencer as Minnie.  They both deserve Oscar nominations, and one could make a case for Bryce Howard as the thoroughly despicable racist Hilly Holbrook.    Full marks to Kathryn Stockett for managing to get ‘the Help’ to be brave enough to tell their stories, albeit initially in anonymous form.
There are so many moments in this movie that make you laugh or cry, or want to cheer, or jeer, that it is truly unfair to single out too many of them, and spoil the movie.  One scene however which needs to be mentioned is where Miss Hilly tells her maid that she cannot loan her $75 so both her children can go to college, because ‘the Bible says’ that those who are able and can work should provide for themselves, and not look to charity!  Never mind what terrible exegesis this is of the Thessalonian discussions on working and eating,  the whole notion that it could be Christian to refuse to help ‘the Help’ when they had helped you for years making only a pittance, is—– grotesque, as a representation of the Bible or Christianity.   At the other end of the spectrum are the moments when Abileen says to the little girl she is raising that she must remember that ‘You is kind, you is good, you is important’, something she did not hear from her birth mother, to be sure.   Its a sad world when only the Help are the real Christians teaching real Christian values to little white girls and boys in the old South.
This movie is rich in ethos— you can smell the fried chicken cookie in the Crisco, and those chocolate pies— I’ll leave the surprise about one of them for you to discover in the movie.  You can feel the humidity,  smell the perfume, and the hair spray, and taste the ice cold Cokes, and oh yes, feel the fear and prejudice and pride just oozing out of people’s pores.   And if you don’t come away with the sense of the tragic, the pathos of the situation, you are a cold-hearted person.  I found myself crying at various points in the movie.  My granny would have called this a four hankie movie.  But there is also joy and courage and love in this movie as well.   Here is a movie you can and should take the whole family to— whether you are Southerners or not.  And then ask yourself—- who am I in this movie?  Where do I see myself, and in whom?    You may be surprised at your own answers.   If the function of a good drama is to raise important questions, and move you to search for answers, this movie does that in spades.    Keep writing Ms. Skeeter, you have a right to be proud of sketching these ‘profiles in courage’.

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