Tuesday, August 23, 2011
The Help (Movie Review)
Well, I read the book, and I just saw the movie. And my conclusion is this: some people think Huckleberry Finn is racist, too, because the tale has Jim, a runaway slave, and people in the book refer to Jim as "nigger." Sure, that sounds racist. But if you actually read the book, you see that Twain clearly believes that slavery is wrong and that Jim is every bit the protagonist that Huck is, and that Twain is trying to show us how appalling it is to treat any human being as a lesser person. The Help is much like this in its intent. The maids are not "Uncle Tomasina" type mammies, and Skeeter (the protagonist) does not rescue them. She collaborates with them; they help each other. And the maids help other white people in the film as well--with the important distinction that the ones they help (in a non-menial way) are the ones who see them as equals.
Perhaps I recognize this because I grew up in Richmond, Virginia--city of Monument Avenue lined with statues of Confederate heroes and capital of the Confederate States of America--in the 1960s and 1970s, and I grew up with help in my own house. Unlike the persons in Stoddard's book and the movie, we weren't upper class white folks, though. Nope. We were lower middle class. Both of my parents worked, so we had an African American maid/babysitter (today the role is referred to as "nanny") who also did some light cooking. She was paid $35 a week, which was crap; my daddy picked her up in his car every morning and drove her home at the end of every day. Bessie loved us kids. She was a second mother to me, if not really a surrogate mother (since my stepmom wanted very little to do with us). She wore the same wrinkled house dress every day with comfortable shoes and was very old, and she had exactly three teeth in her head. I would sit, fascinated, watching her drink her tea every morning. She was allowed to eat at the table with us kids.
I'm not sure that would've been the case had she ever had occasion to eat with my parents. Bessie just fed us breakfast and lunch and Saturday dinner when my parents went out on their weekly date. Her life's work had been raising white families' children. She spoke fondly of every last one of them.
Does that make her a "Mammy?" I don't think so, because I doubt very seriously she felt about my parents the same way she felt about us, the children. She was formal with them, addressing them as "Sir" and "Ma'am" (although we were expected to as well), and she referred to them as "the Mister" and "the Missus." I doubt she was crazy about her measly paycheck, but since she was an old woman of color--she told me stories of her school being in a one-room schoolhouse out in the country, when the President was Calvin Coolidge--so I doubt she had many job options.
Likewise, The Help takes place in the South (here, the Deep South in Jackson, Mississippi) during the late 1950s and early 1960s, so black women probably had fewer employment options at the time. They were, to be blunt about it, essentially treated by many as paid house slaves. (There's a poignant moment in the movie when one maid points out that she had been "left" to the family she worked for in the grandparents' will, as if she had been property.) No one in the film applauds this; Skeeter and the maids all look appalled, as of course they would be.
It's not racist to describe it as it was. It is racist to push it all under the rug and pretend it never happened, or to pretend that prejudice against blacks in this country ended when slavery ended. It most certainly did not.
As a child, I didn't understand the rules. Bessie was just Bessie to me. I had black friends at school, busing had started, and my family (fairly poor) sent me to public schools. (Some of my white friends' parents sent their kids to private school when busing commenced.) In high school, my very best friend was a beautiful African American woman named Kim, with whom (in retrospect) I was more than a little in love, though I wasn't very sexually aware at the time and just thought it was the normal adoration one might have for, say, a sister. One day I brought Kim home. My stepmother was there. I introduced them. It was a short conversation and Kim had to be on her way.
My stepmother snapped at me as the door closed after her: "Don't you EVER bring a nigger to this house again!"
I was genuinely confused. "But Bessie is--"
Today I understand that having a black person in your house was okay if they were a paid servant. Having one as a friend was not so much okay. And then I understood in a flash why it was servers at the S&W Cafeteria always looked like they wanted to throttle my stepmother when she called them "gal." I thought it was just my stepmother's country upbringing, but no--it was her racist upbringing. It is insulting when a white person calls a black adult "gal" or "boy." But they sure as heck weren't Uncle Toms because they didn't sass her or reach across the counter to slap her. A person has got to keep her job.
That was the South. To draw an accurate picture of it as it was is not racist. It is exposing it for what it was.... and, at times, still is--and not just in the South, and not just when it comes to African Americans. Here in California, I see a lot of Mexicans treated the same way. The message non-white laborers are continually sent is "you're not as good as I am." I honestly don't see white nannies and white gardeners (oops, sorry, I mean landscape architects) treated in the way the day laborers lined up outside Home Depot are. But no doubt some are, because race is not really the only issue here: class is inextricably tied up in all of this, too.
The maids in The Help clearly aren't crazy about their employers, at least not the ones who treat them as lower class. And Skeeter is no angel. Her first agenda in approaching Abilene about the book is more "career motivated" or selfish than anything else--the Civil Rights era is getting rolling and she sees an opportunity to write a good book. Abilene at first refuses to be involved: too risky. But their motives evolve. Abilene is struck at church that a book in which the maids tell the truth about their existence would be a brave thing, the right thing to do. As Skeeter begins to take down the tales, the book also ceases to be hers. The book turns into THEIRS. The product, by ANONYMOUS, is a collection of all their stories, a collaboration. Skeeter appropriately splits the royalties with all the maids, and all (including Skeeter) get an equal share.
To say the maids in The Help are mammy-types is insulting to them, I would think. They don't love their "massuhs" and they don't just always roll over and take it. There is plenty of mocking and giggling in the kitchen behind their employers' backs, and Minnie takes the world's most memorable revenge against the high and mighty Hilly (that I won't reveal here because it would ruin one of the funniest moments in the film should you choose to see it).
Yes, yes, some will say, but why does it always have to be told from the point of view of a white woman? Why couldn't a black woman write about the maids? That's a good question. Perhaps one will be forthcoming. But in any case, Elizabeth Stoddard's book (and the movie) take place some decades ago, and in the early 1960s, would a publisher like Harper & Row been willing to read a manuscript by an unknown black writer? There's always a possibility, but it would be hard to believe, and works of fiction succeed only when they're believable. Let's not forget that women writers, period, black or white, haven't been taken seriously for all that long. Let's not forget that some women writers of a mere century ago or so felt they had to write under male pseudonyms if they expected to be published.
Having said all this, I will say the book and the movie are flawed. They're both worth reading and seeing because they're entertaining and they impart a good "take away" message: when we band together, right will prevail is one; another is "everybody's shit stinks--we're all equal, so don't you forget it." The book isn't great literature, but it's a good read. The movie isn't an instant classic, but the some of the performances are remarkable. You'll love Minnie, Skeeter, and Abilene; you'll love the kind-hearted white trash (who is less trash ultimately than the high and mighty Hilly); and you'll love Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson. You will feel angry at the appropriate moments, and you'll have a few belly laughs. Definitely it's worth seeing, and it's good enough that I might even see it again once it's out on DVD.
Here's the trailer: