'The Help': Not Just Black and White


There are two widespread misconceptions about the new film The Help.

One of them is the fault of the movie's own marketing team, and easily cleared up. Based on the happy, shiny ads that they released, many people -- myself included -- were afraid that the filmmakers had taken a thoughtful, sobering story and made it into a fluffy comedy. Fortunately, that's not the case. The movie fully captures the gravitas of the book, and the ads are simply misleading ads, nothing more. Why they were put together that way is a mystery, but it's not the first such case and probably won't be the last.

The second misconception is more difficult to deal with.

The Help, as you may know, tells the story of a young college graduate, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), who returns home to Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s with dreams of becoming a writer. At the same time, Skeeter's girlhood friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is launching an initiative to force all the town's hired help to use outdoor bathrooms. This sparks Skeeter's interest in the plight of Jackson's black maids, and she asks one of those maids, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), to help write a book about what the lives of "the help" are really like.

At first reluctant to risk her job, her freedom, and possibly even her life, Aibileen finally agrees to share her story anonymously. And she recruits other maids, including her good friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), to do the same. During the secretive writing and publishing process, Skeeter learns things she never knew about the women who've been in the background her whole life, including the woman who raised her.

Skeeter is white; Aibileen and Minny and the rest of the maids are black. That alone has made many people nervous or even irritated about the film, often before they've seen it.

Many of these people are afraid of The Help following in the footsteps of films that made a hash of racial relations, or showed a patronizing attitude toward black people. Dr. Boyce Watkins writes, "Most of these films have the brave white protagonist, who has the courage to (gasp!) treat us like we’re actually human beings."

Watkins cites A Time to Kill and Amistad as two such films. Others have brought up Gone with the Wind, Driving Miss Daisy, and pretty much every film in between that dealt with relationships between blacks and whites. Because many of these films fit the pattern pointed out by Watkins -- white protagonist with black characters treated as secondary, even in films that are supposed to tell their own stories -- many predicted that The Help would follow suit. The fact that Skeeter is writing the story of the black maids only bolstered that perception.

As it happens, however, The Help is different. The first thing we see is Skeeter typing, and the first voice we hear -- almost simlutaneously -- is Aibileen's, telling her story. The conjunction signals something: that this is a film about not one-upmanship, but partnership.

From the beginning, there is no doubt that the story belongs more to the black maids than to the white writer. Though Skeeter's story is important, it's not primary. And it's intertwined with those of the true protagonists, the maids, in ways that lift up everyone. In fact, one could say that the titular "help" goes both ways.

There may be a specific reason for that. One of the most important elements in The Help is Aibileen's steadfast faith in God, from whom she derives her sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice. It is that faith that carries her through everything, from the tragic loss of her son to the small but painful indignities she endures every day.

And it's that faith that inspires her to tell her story, to try to change things. One of the most memorable lines in the film occurs when Skeeter asks Aibileen what made her decide to work on the book project. The immediate cause of Aibileen's cooperation is Hilly's viciousness toward the maids. But it's not the only cause: Aibileen has also been inspired by a powerful sermon that her minister preached, about courage and what it requires.

All this is summed up in Aibileen's response to Skeeter's question: "God, and Miss Hilly Holbrook." This is a woman interested in pursuing not just revenge, but righteousness.

It's God who both provides guidance and transcends divisions in this film -- divisions between races, and also between classes. Minny's two bosses exemplify this, in a subplot with faint but unmistakble echoes of the Pharisees and Jesus' admonitions to them.

The proper and well-dressed Hilly, who fires Minny for using the indoor bathroom, flatters herself that she's a good Christian. But Aibileen, in a moment that feels heavy with divine judgment, ultimately declares to Hilly's face that she is "a godless woman."

It's the flawed Celia (Jessica Chastain), who wears tight clothes and mile-high heels and is scorned by the town's "ladies," who has a truly compassionate heart and treats Minny with dignity and respect. The story of these two women reflects the film's larger theme: that in God's sight, it's the heart that matters, not the appearance.

If The Help manages to break even a little bit of new ground in the history of racial relations in film -- and I think perhaps it does -- it's for these reasons. If it avoids the "white savior" syndrome, it's because Aibileen and her friends already have a Savior. And it's their belief that their worth, like everyone else's, comes from Him and can never be taken away, that leads them on, and so ultimately drives their story.

For further reading:

"Watching 'The Help' as an African-American Woman"
Natasha Robinson | Her.meneutics | August 11, 2011

"'The Help: Seeing Sin through Cinema"
Chuck Colson | BreakPoint Commentary | August 16, 2011

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.

Image copyright DreamWorks SKG.

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