My mother and I saw The Help last weekend. I had read the novel a year or two ago and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t blown away by it. I actually preferred the movie.
As the credits began to roll, no one in the theater moved. It was like they were all still frozen, lost in their own thoughts. I asked mom about it after and she said she thought it was guilt. Not just race guilt but knowing that there are so many people who are suffering and abused, “you think of the children” and you think you should be doing more, you should be doing something.
What angered my mother more than the outright cruel characters in the film were the ones who simply went along with the pack leader and remained silent, or caved to peer pressure. She mentioned the quote about the hottest places in hell reserved for those who did nothing (the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintained their neutrality seems to have been misattributed to Dante by JFK).
I was more annoyed with the three women behind me who insisted upon talking and commenting throughout the entire film. Each mistreatment was greeted with a gasp and a sigh, as if they never knew such things occurred. I should say occur, as I would argue this is hardly our past. When the maids in the grocery story must move out of the way for the white woman, I thought of women in Saudi Arabia who are something less than second-class citizens. I remembered my cousin Sarah talking about her time in South Korea and having to adjust to the custom that the woman must always make way for the man when walking in public, or even driving. The right of way laws are simple there: if you are a man, you have the right of way. I don’t know what happens when the drivers are the same gender.
Despite the trio behind me, I liked the film. The characters were interesting, the acting and writing was top-notch, and the filmmakers did a great job recreating 1960s America. I’d give it a solid B+. However, I know there has been a lot of criticism from prominent black women, most notable Melissa Harris Perry, about the depiction of race and gender and what life was really like for black women in the Jim Crow south. I wanted to see the film for myself before reading her criticism. [More after the jump]
Her line that I’ve heard most quoted is that The Help makes life for black women look like The Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi, when in reality “it was rape, it was lynching, it was the burning of communities.”
First, I would posit that something doesn’t have to be shown to be addressed. It can be implied. The scene when Aibileen, one of the maids, leaves the bus and runs home made clear to me that when something happens (in the film, the assassination of Medgar Evers) it is not safe for a black woman to be out on the streets. Aibileen herself isn’t raped or lynched, but it was clear to me that was a possibility if she didn’t find shelter.
Another of the maids, Minnie, is a survivor of domestic violence. There is a scene when her husband comes home and she begins screaming. She then sports a cut above her eye for a few scenes. She also has a scene in which she works in the kitchen with a Aibieleen and laughs about their employers. I don’t believe this diminishes the effects of domestic violence, nor does it imply that life is just peachy for survivors of domestic violence. Minnie is not defined by her victimhood or survivor status. Is life with an abuser all laughter and giggles? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good times, too.
The same holds true for the help and black women in 1960’s Mississippi. Depicting these women in moments of levity doesn’t diminish the severity of the other facets of their lives. To me, it shows them as better drawn characters who are not one-dimensional. I’m glad Perry has raised the issues of race and gender, and I acknowledge that has a privileged WASP woman in New England, my perspective is very different. Still, I didn’t find The Help as problematic as Perry, and would still encourage people to see it.