'The Help' - two views of a controversial film

August 14, 2011 

"The Help," Kathryn Stockett's best-seller about the lives of black maids working for white families in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s, has been a darling of reviewers and readers.

But some African-Americans found it presumptuous for a white author to tell the story, and others were put off by the too-familiar tale of a white hero leading blacks to their civil rights victory.

We asked two staffers, one black (Millicent Fauntleroy) and one white (Burgetta Wheeler), to offer their take on the movie version as it hit theaters Friday.

Millicent Fauntleroy

The movie "The Help" stole my thunder. Took away my fire. Yes, that same volcanic mess that overflowed as I read Kathryn Stockett's much-praised, much-purchased novel last year. Then, my outraged psyche said, "How dare she? What gave her the right? How can she purloin OUR story? And, what's with that dialect bit?"

But after seeing Viola Davis as the determined housekeeper Aibileen in the cinematic version of Stockett's novel, I am persuaded, that, yes, Skeeter, a recent college graduate raised by her family's maid, has a claim to the story, too. Initially, I was angered by this young white woman's seeming appropriation of the maids' stories. But no more.

And, in the movie, the sound of the South rolls from the mouths of both white and black women, taking away another of my objections to the book. (It grated for me to read the black housekeepers speaking in a way-down-South patois, with no drawl or dialect from the white women.)

By telling the film version of Stockett's story of four black maids and the hateful white, Mississippi women for whom they work, Dreamworks Studios and director Tate Taylor highlight the slow change that bore some fruit in the U.S. in the early '60s - even in Mississippi. The civil rights struggle is a backdrop to this story.

KNOWING THEM

My personal experience parallels it in many ways, and I grew up in North Carolina knowing intimately the Aibileens, Constantines and Minnys that people it. They were my aunts and my neighbors and the women with whom I attended church. I watched each morning as they waited for the bus that would take them far away from their own homes. They were the ones who worked hard during the week and beyond, shook their heads at how "nasty" their particular white people could be, and prayed - yes, Lord - on Sunday for a way out and a way up.

And, yes, some of those women came to love some of the white charges they were pitifully paid to care for. To suggest otherwise, as have some black women with whom I have spoken, would deny the essential humanity of black women whose capacity to love is assuredly intact. Some of the film's most poignant scenes are those in which Aibileen works to instill a sense of worth in Mae Mobley, a white toddler whose mother ignores her.

Aibileen knew that she was somebody and that her job did not define her and was working to pass along that knowledge. This is made-for-TV, pull-out-the-lace-hankie stuff, for sure, but it is also real.

Happily, the serious trumps the sappy. A fine cast makes "The Help" a message-bearing vehicle that only occasionally veers toward the maudlin.

The film is a story of conflict, but more important, of courage. Especially of the sort that shows what can happen when just one person steps away from the crowd. Aibileen was such a person, as was the gutsy, outspoken Minny, played by Octavia Spencer. And surely, it took a special kind of valor to pull Skeeter away from her high-society cohorts to even suggest the writing project on which the movie and the book turn.

FOLLOWING THE LEADER

As I watched, I wondered how the story might have flowed if even one more of the white women had stood up to Hilly (wonderfully acted by Bryce Dallas Howard), ringleader of a pack of fawning minions who do her bidding. Sad, isn't it, how we so often find ourselves conforming to the strongest personality, even when we disagree with where we are being led?

We see that possibility in Hilly's irascible mother, played charmingly by Sissy Spacek. We see it also in one or two of Hilly's friends and in Constantine's daughter, whose appearance is brief, but laden with possibility.

Possibility comes into full flower in the written word, the stories themselves.

"I thought I might write my stories down and read them to you," Aibileen tells Skeeter, once the decision to proceed with their inextricably linked life stories has been made.

In that simple sentence, Aibileen not only reclaims the story that is rightfully hers but also becomes an agent of change for a community.

How pleasing to know that someone still believes in the power of the carefully chosen phrase to change minds and hearts.

Burgetta Wheeler

The college professor teaching my freshman music appreciation class circled the word three times in red, adding a couple of exclamation points for emphasis. The grade on my review of a Lionel Hampton Orchestra performance is lost to time, but my mortification over my ignorance in referring in it to black people as "Negroes" stings to this day.

Growing up in the 1970s in an all-white West Virginia subdivision, in an all-white town, I lived in an isolated world that held exactly two African-Americans: the one black girl who briefly attended my high school with 1,300 white students and the one lovely black woman who occasionally led my mother's charismatic Christian women's fellowship. No one called April "the black student." No one called Myrna the "black woman." They were just April and Myrna.

So I didn't know how black people were referring to their ethnicity. In high school, I had written a research paper on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, having sat transfixed inside the area's largest library as I listened to scratchy recordings of his powerful words - words that included "Negro."

I just didn't know the times had changed. It wasn't malicious. It was ignorance.

And that's part of the beauty of movies and books like "The Help." Among the heart-stirring characters and laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue lies a sobering education in the realities of the Jim Crow South. It's a lesson we still need, given that the farther we get from the 1960s, the harder it can be to believe that this horror actually occurred in our country.

EMPATHY AROUSED

As I watched a special screening of "The Help" - a superb movie in nearly every way - I kept thinking that its real power lay in leading us to the empathy a functioning society requires. My eyes welled up the first of several times during a scene in which black people were streaming up the steps of a restaurant, dutifully following the path marked "Colored." That sign, the cruelty and indignity of it, never fails to affect me this way.

That I was a white person sitting among a mostly African-American audience made my usual disgust over that sign especially acute. That the vast majority of the movie's white characters were reprehensible (and no doubt historically accurate) left me cringing. That the black characters were so real, so complex and so likable had me wondering why some African-Americans have so vehemently assailed the book the movie is based upon.

In an essay in Entertainment Weekly, writer Martha Southgate said that "The Help" to her is just another story in which a white person plays the hero of the civil rights movement, relegating blacks to bit players.

But even Skeeter, the white protagonist who is gathering up the stories of black maids working in white homes for an exposé-type book, says when another character asks how she feels: This isn't about me. It doesn't matter how I feel.

And that's how the movie felt to me. That it wasn't about her. It was about looking beyond the ubiquitous maid's uniform that apparently made black women invisible (when they weren't subhuman) in certain upper-class homes of the South in the 1960s and seeing them, acknowledging them and their pain, knowing them, empathizing with them. And loving them.

NECESSARY KNOWLEDGE

"What does it feel like to be me?" asks Aibileen, the courageous star of this story, somewhat in wonder after Skeeter tries to draw from her the stories of being a maid in a hideous white home. Aibileen invokes the agony of losing her beloved son, who died when a white foreman at a lumber yard threw the severely injured worker into the back of his pickup truck and dumped him at the black hospital across town with only a honk.

"Every year on the day of his death, I can't breathe, and to you all it's just another day of (playing) bridge," Aibileen says.

No one who sees "The Help" can leave it without acknowledging the real cruelty and indignities that so many African-Americans endured in this country. No viewer can later say, "I just didn't know."

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