Special to The History Place
Near the end of The Help, the African-American maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) asks Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), easily the most prejudiced woman in her circle of Jackson, Mississippi housewives, “Ain’t you tired?” This seemed to me to be the right question for someone to have posed, collectively, to all the people – black and white – of the Deep South in the early 1960s. The segregation waltz, danced more or less ceaselessly since 1865, must have numbed many an otherwise sensitive soul.
The contradictions, well known, yet still startling, are at once poignant and infuriating. Black maids (the help) not only cook, clean, and shop for their employers. In many households, they also raise the children. To Skeeter (Emma Stone), her black nanny (Cicely Tyson) was more of a mother than her biological parent. But, while the African-American women provide everything from potty training to TLC to their young charges, Hilly and friends are promoting a campaign to expand the separate-but-equal statutes to encompass household bathroom facilities. At Christmas, Hilly’s social club throws its annual gala for “the African children,” while she callously fires her maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) for daring to use the family bathroom.
It seems to me that, if The Help is (as it seems) an accurate depiction of the segregated South of post-WWII America, these contradictions and the sub-text of sublimated racial tensions, must have been absolutely exhausting for both sides of the color line. One senses that the black maids are not the only women trapped and imprisoned by Jim Crow. The white wives, young as well as old, seem resigned to a life of comfortable boredom and mediocrity.
The exception is Skeeter. A recent graduate of Ole Miss who aspires to be a novelist, Skeeter starts out on Jackson’s daily newspaper, writing a weekly column of housekeeping advice at $8.00 a week. For Skeeter, this is just a stopgap on the road to the Big Apple. She persuades a New York book editor, played by Mary Steenburgen, to take a hard look at her project, a collection of stories – oral histories in today’s academic jargon – told to Skeeter by the black maids of Jackson. After reading the first couple of chapters, the editor is intrigued. However, she insists, two storytellers aren’t sufficient. “You need at least a dozen more.”
No surprise that the maids are reluctant to talk. Job loss may be the least of the penalties they could pay. Medgar Evers has just been murdered in his driveway, his wife and kids just on the other side of the front door. President Jack Kennedy isn’t far behind Evers on the killing floor that was 1960s America. In the super-heated environment of a sweltering Mississippi summer, talking to Skeeter could mean dictating one’s own death sentence. Only after one of their number is brutalized by the police do these working women turn out in real numbers to help make Skeeter’s book a reality.
Although "The Help" is credited on its dust jacket to “Anonymous,” the buzz in Jackson is soon intense. How the various characters, white and black react and are affected by the book’s publication forms the climax of this two-hour exploration of segregation, as it existed and persisted at the most intimate level of Southern society – inside the home.
The film does credit to the novel on which it’s based. Even at two hours, it can’t cover everything to be found in the book. Minny’s horrid home life, punctuated by beatings periodically administered by her no-good husband, is referenced only tangentially. Other aspects of the black man’s burden are more implied than dramatized. Overall, however, The Help takes us back half a century to a time and place which, today, come down more as a Gothic tale from a foreign country than as a significant chapter of our own American history. At times, only the soundtrack of American pop music of the Fifties and Sixties confirms that, yes, indeedy –“We see the enemy, and it was us.”
Rated PG-13 for thematic material.
Jim Castagnera, a freelance journalist and practicing attorney, is the author of 18 books, including Al Qaeda Goes to College (Praeger 2009) and Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires (Amazon 2011).