Review: The Help

(Note: here there be spoilers for the movie. Once I read the book, no doubt there’ll be spoilers for that as well.)

I’m really late on this.

When I first started seeing the movie posters, I thought, oh great, another civil rights era showing blacks in menial jobs. When I heard its main character was white, I already knew the plot: white girl sees black maids, white girl uses her resources to single-handedly help them, there’ll be some mayhem, and in the end, the white girl walks off feeling good. See, it’s a feel-good movie. Just like the Blind Side.

But then an interesting thing happened. In my facebook stream, I started to see two polarizing opinions. The first was from mostly feminists who said pretty much what I wrote above–which included this statement from the Association of Black Women Historians. The other side was praise from Christians, mostly women, who saw the movie as uplifting and inspiring. What’s more, it was coming from black Christian women. That didn’t happen with the Blind Side.

I put the book in my to-read pile. I still had reservations about seeing the movie. My co-workers invited me to see with them, but I felt somewhat funny being the only black person in the group. My black writer friends were scattered over the country, but they ragged on the movie. So I figured I’d have to wait until it came out on Netflix, until Christmas, when my aunt pulled out the movie on blu-ray and asked, "Hey, look what I got." My grandma looked at it and said, "Well, nothing else is on. Put it in."

So I watched the Help with the womanfolk of my family (all the men, of course, vanished, because hey, chick flick). That really enhanced the movie, because, as I hoped, they did not keep quiet during the movie. My mom, my aunts, and especially my grandma, had a whole lot to say during the movie. And that helped enhance it as a whole.

My grandmother wasn’t a maid, but she did clean people’s houses during that era before she was able to become a nurse. She verified the rules that the black maids had to remember in how they interacted with white people. She also shared some interesting insights that the movie glossed over–for instance when Abilene gets kicked off the bus because a black guy got killed, and she goes home to learn that Medgar Evars was killed.  Grandma told us that not many people know about him, but he was instrumental in getting the civil rights movement off the ground. "You don’t hear much about him," she said, "but he did a lot of good work–him and Martin Luther King, Jr. Folks got angry when he got killed."

She also said that the black women loving the white children they raised was pretty much spot on. "Children are innocent. They don’t know any better." Afterwards Grandma and I talked black and white relations in general after the movie. "Wasn’t no big deal," she said. "You had the whole gamut of black folk who didn’t care a thing about the people they worked for, and then there were others who were treated like part of the family. You need to understand, down in the south, it was pretty much expected that way. Blacks and white lived side by side, kids played with each other–it was the norm. But it was also expected that the blacks got all the menial jobs, that they couldn’t rise up higher than their level. As long as they knew their place, they were fine."

Then she said:

In the south, you can live next to them; you just can’t be better than them.
In the north, you can be better than them; you just can’t live next to them.

She then told me about her aunt who lived in Arkansas (and taught my grandma to love books–which she passed down to me) who had a farm right across from a white couple. They were friendly to each other. Every so often, the white couple would send for my great aunt to come over and do something like kill a chicken, because that was what black folk did. And my great aunt did it because that was the norm. Didn’t matter what her mood was like, or if she did it out of charity or bitterness. It didn’t matter. No one questioned it, because it never entered into their heads to do so.

That wasn’t too long ago, either.

My grandma and mom and aunts loved the movie (which is interesting because my mom is the only professing Christian in the lot). As for me, I liked it, but probably not for the same reasons.

The beginning starts off just the way I figured it would–with Skeeter as the main character and the story being centered around her. We’re also introduced to Abilene, who could be considered the secondary main character. Minnie is definitely an antagonist of sorts, though it could have been the other white woman, but Minnie stands out far more to me.

As the movie went on, a very interesting thing happened. Although Skeeter was more the protagonist, there were less and less scenes of her and more of Abilene and Minnie. In fact, many of the strongest scenes had either Abilene or Minnie or both in them, but no Skeeter. (Case in point–the movie sets up this whole dating thing with Skeeter and that dude–can’t remember his name. But that gets gets glossed over with Minnie’s storyline with the pie (which my family found a hoot). You don’t even know Skeeter was dating him until he breaks up with her after the book comes out. You could cut that entire storyline out and it would’ve made no impact to the plot.)

That ending when Abilene enters the church to a standing ovation, and she gets the book with everyone names in it–dang if that didn’t make me tear up. And what does Skeeter get? Umm…an opportunity to go to New York, which she plans to turn down, but hey, the long-suffering maids urge her to go, because it’s not like nothing is keeping her there (and moreover, it’s not like her life will be in danger if she stays, not like the maids…sorry. I so hated that scene.) Luckily, Skeeter is written out goes to New York, and we get to the true ending, where Abilene confronts her employer.  It was as if the movie itself knew that the actual strength of the story came from the black characters, but it made Skeeter the main character because…well…it’s the norm.

It could have been bold. Make Abilene the main protagonist and ditch all the weak, stereotypical, "let’s show how white southern women go around acting like high faluting members of "Mama’s Family",  and put the focus on Abilene, Minnie, and Skeeter in that order, and this would’ve been such a powerful film, right up there with The Color Purple. But it didn’t. It went with the safe white protagonist. And that just made the movie good. Not great…but light and good. Shame.

As for all the naysayers about it, well, I can certainly see why you don’t want to see it. And that’s a shame as well, because this wasn’t a story about a white privileged female who wanted to become a journalist, so she writes a story about black maids. This was a story about a black woman who wanted to become a writer, so she uses a white journalist to get her story out to the country. You can see it as a privileged person taking advantage of her status to get ahead in life, or you can see it as black women taking a risk to empower themselves.

I asked my mom what she thought about the movie. "In those days, it was all about people taking risks, even though they knew it could kill them. It was those risks that got the civil rights movement rolling."

This gets the rating of 3 chocolate pies out of 5. I would rate it more, but I don’t know…after this movie, I’m going to look at chocolate pies with more suspicion than normal.

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