'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’.

  • http://bl3t.com Bob Lewis

    Terrific review Ben. My wife grew up with one of “the help” and the movie experience was a cascade of memories. Being a Yankee, my introduction to the culture of the 50s was a bit of a shock. I even got tossed off a bus because I sat in the back, irritating the locals and the driver.

  • LCG

    Great review of a great movie. Should be well represented at the Oscars. Everyone under 40 should see this movie as a reminder of what we were (and still can be) at our worst as a people. While this didn’t pretend to be a ‘Christian’ film this is what Christian film making should look like, not like ‘Fireproof’ and ‘Flywheel’ and ‘Left Behind’. The Gospel was present in this film and it was communicated in a powerful and realistic way thru ‘the help’. May this tribe of filmmakers increase greatly.

  • http://www.deltatwins.com Bob

    “…this movie does that in SPADES.” ?!

  • Oscar

    Uh, Bob? I hope that your comment was an unintentional double entendre.”SPADES”?

    And Ben, I don’t think that this was a “true” story since the author was born in 1969, but it WAS reflective of her upbringing, being from Jackson, Miss. and being raised by an African American “maid”.

    The characters in the book are mostly fictional (I’m reading the book, at present) but you are correct, she gets the tone and setting just perfect.

    Which brings me to a related subject. I have a couple of acquaintances who were raised in that manner and who “loved” their care takers, but when the subject of unequal treatment is raised they bridle at the suggestion that their own attitude toward the help was inherently racist in a paternalistic way.

    Racism comes in different flavors, all of them bitter, from outright hate to the overly solicitous pandering that we see today. It ALL stinks!

  • http://www.EdwardFudge.com Edward Fudge


    My wife Sara Faye, of impeccable Southern credentials — hometown Franklin, Tennessee, born eligible for Daughters of the American Revolution and also Daughters of the Confederacy, Peabody/Vanderbilt graduate — raised blue-collar middle-class but genteel, and I — raised white-collar middle class in Athens, Alabama, population of “regular folks” like us, but also neighborhoods that we little white Christian boys called (when parents were not within earshot) “Niggertown” and “Boogertown” respectively (we did not discriminate in our discriminating, prejudices included both black and white ) — both had read “The Help” and already planned to see the movie. Your report probably moves that up to this coming weekend. Thanks!

  • Jon Altman

    Ben, not exactly “true” story-Kathryn Stockett was born in 1969-six years after the events depicted in the movie. The story tells much “truth,” however.

  • Cunnudda

    Ben, frankly your review makes me less likely to see the movie. What you depict is caricature. Instead of nuance and complex relationships, you suggest a, well, black-and-white world where the whites are all bad – except the author character, who is redeemed by despising her own tribe – and the blacks are all good, even treating the white kids better than their parents do. If I wanted that narrative, it would be cheaper to watch Al Sharpton on TV.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben

    Well Cunnuda there are other more complex characters in the story, including Skeeter’s Mother who makes a terrible mistake in regard to her maid, caving in to pressure, but in the end, is a much more likable character. And then there is the blonde lady who can’t have children who is shunned as poor white trash by the uppity whites, but she herself is far more open and welcoming to persons of other races, knowing what it is like to be shunned or treated as a pariah herself. But the point I would want to push back in your direction is that there were plenty of whites exactly like that. In fact many, many of them. There were also a few whites who marched with Evers and King, mostly from the north. What I have described is not caricature, unless you mean by that, that I was suggesting all whites were that way. No, I certainly wasn’t suggesting that. But it was definitely the dominant ethos of the culture. As for the comment about whites vehemently denying racism while having been raised by the help, and many cases having treated them in patronizing ways (though that did not always happen), I am afraid that this is rather likely the contemporary denial that any racism is involved in some of the prejudicial comments made these days about Hispanics. The psychologists call this projection, and being in denial— and it is.


  • http://edbrenegar.typepad.com Ed Brenegar

    Our experiences are nearly parallel. I wrote about four African-Americans who were influential in my life as a young person. http://edbrenegar.typepad.com/leading_questions/2009/02/homage.html.
    One was Sally Mitchell who came to our house a couple times a week to clean and babysit me and my two sisters.
    I look forward to seeing The Help. I’ll watch it with her memory sitting there by my side. It will be like sitting behind Dr. Jackson at the Varsity theater watching Gone With The Wind for the first time, and seeing it through his eyes. It has never been an easy movie for me to watch as a result.
    Thanks for your review.

  • Greg Metzger

    Great review. Convinced me to see this film. Thanks.