Sunday, August 14, 2011

"The Help" - the movie (non-astro)

On Thursday evening we saw The Help. Neither of us had read Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel of the same title. I'd read only an outline of it's storyline. We both thought it "a good movie, well-acted", and had little more to say to each other about it because, when we arrived home from the cinema, we found our hot water tank had sprung a leak - it was almost 10 pm.

We were unable to find any tap, valve or other device for stemming the flow now seeping through to carpeting indoors and out under the porch wall . My husband rang his son AJ, a heat and air expert, who lives quite close by. AJ came to our rescue. After examination it was decided that we'd need a new tank as the damage was internal and unreachable. He took out the old tank, coupled the water pipes to the cold water supply so's we could use all bathroom faucets. AJ was back next evening to complete the work, and we are now all-systems-go once more.

After mopping up and drying out, discussion of The Help, was far from our minds, overlaid by gratitude for our own helper, a tired but very willing AJ.
Before drafting this post I scooted around a few reviews and comment threads about the movie, and the novel. I was surprised to find that there's a sizeable body of dissent from what I thought was a fairly unanimous opinion that it's a good, entertaining movie -and that most readers had seen the novel as a darn good read.

For a passing reader unfamiliar with the storyline, The Help, starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, among others, is set in 1963 Mississippi, around the time of civil rights protests, the killing of Medgar Evers, assassination of JFK, etc. Those events feature only as background material, seen on TV screens, however. Focus is on the lives of some black domestic servants of wealthy southern households. The novel's sets "Skeeter" (Emma Stone) a daughter of one such wealthy household, something of a maverick among her peers, as "heroine". She comes home from college aiming to be a writer and looks for a job as a journalist locally. She obtains a very modest job on the town's newspaper, but as a sideline decides to try to write a book about how the local black women, domestic servants, view their lifestyles and their experiences in the town's well-to-do white households.

Skeeter's wet behind the ears, a tad too wet considering she's been in college for several years during some intense racial conflict. Yet she seems not to fully realise the can of worms she's attempting to open. The white women employers, her peers and "friends" are portrayed as uniformly horrendous - rascist, classist, selfish, self-obsessed snobs. I thought them caricatures but my husband assures me they are true to life for that era in that area of the US. There's only one half-decent white person, outside of that category, in the movie besides "the heroine": a ditsy Marilyn-type married to one of the local socialites, to the chagrin of local female socialites who class his Mrs. as pure trailer-trash.

It's probably pretty obvious from the above that the movie works basically via stereotype....both black and white. Which is alright, as long as that's kept in mind. Not all southern people were wealthy socialites, nor were they all racist - though in Mississippi in the 1960s it was the prevalent mindset I understand. Segregation, rascism and bigotry continued apace - black domestic servants were degraded in such ways that I began to wonder if I'd mis-read that bit of US history about "freeing the slaves". This kind of degradation was, to my mind, almost equally bad as slavery, it was wholly hypocritcal. I hated the wealthy white women on that silver screen with a hatred unbecoming to the peacelover I'm supposed to be.

The root causes of it all (and I do understand that a layer of racial prejudice was a substantial additon to the problem) the root is truly in class-distinction, which, in the UK we were always led to believe was absent in the USA; and in discrepancy in distribution of wealth. Today that two-headed hydra, class/wealth is rearing its head and roaring once again (not that it ever completely disappeared).

The gist of dissent about book and movie, often coming from African Americans, I discovered, is that the movie is patronising to African Americans, condescending. The scenario portrayed: a young white "heroine", would-be writer looking for a saleable book to make money - would be money off the backs of those suffering degradation. In the movie, though, some of the proceeds from Skeeter's book are shared among the black participants. (The objection could apply to novelist Ms Stockett.)

Skeeter, the young white writer figure, seems to many African Americans to be just another example of a regular pattern in novels of "white" rescuers coming to the aid of the black community. A novelist's tool to pander to the white guilt-soothing idea that there were some good white people ready and willing to play savior. Even that national treasure of a book To Kill a Mockingbird is mentioned more than once in commentary as using one of that ilk of "white savior" plots.

I'd have to argue that, though I can see what's behind the objection in general, it is an unfair objection to those kinds of novels. Logically - where would a black attorney have come from to fill the shoes of Atticus Finch? Were there any back lawyers in the US south of the 60s and before? It was no fault of the African American community, to be sure, but the fact is that black lawyers in the deep south in those days, would have been few and far between. Likewise, would a young black writer have dared to approach the subject matter presented in Ms Stockett's novel? I guess not. So, it was necessary for a white "helper" to step forward from time to time in order that tales of what went on, in fact, could be fictionalised in a credible way. Rosa Parks, for instance needed no white helper, nor did Dr. King, and countless others, but in the world of small town domestic servants, any stepping out of line by black people would be immediately dealt with in very unpleasant ways. The appearance of a white helper was possibly the one and only opportunity to "get the word out", in the case of The Help to show those horrendous travesties of the female sex for what they were.

While AJ was scrambling around our dripping water tank he asked about the movie we'd been to see. I told him: The Help.

"Was it a weepie or was it funny?" he asked.

"No not really a weepie, it was funny in parts, but serious. It's about black women domestic servants in the deep south in the 1960s and the white women they worked for who were all arseholes - and I suspect they really were back then."

"Yes... and even now", he replied with a rueful grin.


kaleymorris said...

I once read a statement that went something like: Mention Vietnam to any two Americans who were alive during that war and you'll start an argument. I believe that is true about race in America and that may be the case for generations yet to come.
You are right. If not the white person, than who? More to the point, that question comes up and illustrates how deeply the racism disease lives within American society ON BOTH SIDES. If there is ever anything, whether a work of fact or fiction, that depicts race relations, somebody is going to complain. It doesn't matter that it may be an attempt to draw a true picture, somebody will complain. And the complaints do tend to be especially loud if a white person had anything to do with bringing it to fruition.
That annoys me to no end and I view it as racism going in the other direction. We are all, as a race, looked down on for the behavior of people from our past. (How long do we have to apologize?) We have made strides to correct that and have a long way to go. But we are criticized for doing that, too.
Not only that, it is used as an easy out. Two people may be involved in a discussion. One may be in a position of authority. There may be a disagreement. Let one throw out the race card and the whole conversation changes if it doesn't come to a dead halt, though it may have nothing to do with the original discussion.
This whole subject irritates me. It should be a non-issue.
I read "The Help" and found it to be very good. I was impressed by the writer's ability to slip in and out of the different melodies of the English language. But I believe the book sanitized and softened the story, the truth of the time and treatment was probably harsher.

anyjazz said...

I agree with that.

And yes, it was much worse.

We have come a long, long way in a relatively short space. And it is continuing.

Twilight said...

kaleymorris ~~~
Hi K - and thanks for your insight on this - which I appreciate a lot.

I'm the last one should be pontificating on this, being such a latecomer to the US.
Still, some problems are universal, prejudice is one of 'em - whether racial or otherwise.

I agree with you that prejudice goes both ways, and it's in instances such as commentary abut this movie that that becomes very clear. Just this morning I read a piece and comments at AlterNet about the movie. One commenter, almost certainly an African American I think, was practically stalking commenters trying to discredit what I saw as reasonable and well-meaning comments. EG: "You lost me at "I'm a white man""
I mean.....really! what is that if not racial prejudice?

Anyway - yes, so much has improved since those days, but until a whole generation, maybe a couple more, die off, there'll always be a residue of bad feeling I guess.

I couldn't help thinking about the history of many members of my own family, in the UK. Most of the women, from my mother and her sister (as teenagers, before WW2) and back to their mother and her mother , and the same on my father's family's side- were domestic servants to wealthy landowners, gentlemen farmers, the lesser aristocracy or dignitaries of some sort. Although there was no question of racial prejudice - all were white - there was a similar level of degradation to servants. Treated as 2nd class citizens. I remember being told that both my grandmothers, when "in service" were never called by their proper names, but always just "Mary". That's a very minor thing compared to what the black maids in the south had to put up with, but the thought of it still rankles with me. I absolutely hate those TV series such as "Upstairs Downstairs" and....there was one on PBS earlier this year - about servants and their aristocratic masters. - Now that brings out all of my prejudices in one big lump!

So...I shouldn't be too hard on the African Americans who still hold a grudge, I guess. I have a similar reaction about a certain section of humanity....and about any kind of inequality.

Twilight said...

anyjazz ~~~ Yes, the black/white prejudice is healing, but slowly.
The big problem now isn't black/white but rich/poor.
It always was really, but the colour thing overlaid and added to it.

Wisewebwoman said...

Interesting this, T. I just read the review in the paper about the movie. I enjoyed the book so will be interested in seeing the modifications for the film as there always are.
As to the protests, I so remember the revival of Showboat in Toronto and the streams of blacks who protested it. I want to scream: it was the era. It was the truth of that era!!
Unless we know our history we are doomed to repeat it. Over and over.
Glad to hear the water tank was fixed up, how lucky are you to have a plumber in the fam?

Twilight said...

WWW ~~~ "Showboat"? Again, it was depicting all the ills brought about by racial prejudice - and as far as I recall, very respectful of all the black characters.
The wounds have gone deep, naturally. But to stop presenting such shows, books and films would, as you say, eventually lead to the wrongs being forgotten.....and quite likely to being re-lived.

Plumbers, firefighters, lifeboatmen - they're MY real heroes!