MAID IN THE SOUTH
It was one-thirty in the afternoon. On a Wednesday. It was Orange County. South Orange County, one of the most white and most Republican sections of California. Who but me, I thought, would be in the theater to see a movie about black maids in Jackson, Mississippi? In 1963? To my shock, the theater was packed, floor to ceiling, stem to stern. All white people to be sure, but they—mostly middle-aged and young, a few oldsters—were there. The OC represented. The audience laughed and cried and applauded in the end. Despite the reviews, which have been mixed and cautious, this film may be a nice little hit at the end of the summer.
Then I came home and watched Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word and heard a commentator I respect, Melissa Harris-Perry, lambast the movie. Her distaste for the film was tweeted regular intervals while she watched it. I have no intention of debating or disagreeing with Dr. Harris-Perry, but I would like to present a different viewpoint. I understand her objections and, as I drove to the theater this afternoon, I, too, sighed and said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice for once for a story about black people be told from the perspective of black people by black people?” “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a film about the Civil Rights movement that didn’t have a white person as the spokesperson for or the rescuer of black people?” I had the same qualms when writing about The Blind Side. I had already read some reviews on The Help that called attention to the way in which the black maids were asked to speak in “dialect.” I was braced for the patronizing white-centric inevitability, but I am a huge Viola Davis fan and had been waiting for this film for months. Therefore, I went to The Help on the first day it opened, so what did I think? Attack or support the film?
I come back to my original point: Wednesday, one-thirty, Orange County, many white people in the theater. Good Job.
Like Dr. Harris-Perry, I am an educator and a professional public speaker. I know, first hand, what happens when, if that audience is a general audience with a general education, you approach an audience on a scholarly level. And it’s not good. You sound patronizing and the audience justifiably reacts to you with hostility. You lose your opportunity to do what you were hired to do: teach. You have to start with where your audience is. You don’t talk down; you talk with. You don’t lecture, you use humor and pathos and facts to get your point across and listen to the people who have come to see you. I always say, I teach only to learn.
I live in an educated neighborhood, University of California, Irvine is five minutes away, but I would guess that I was among the few in the audience who had watched the wonderful PBS special on the American Experience series, Freedom Riders, this past May. Not everyone is interested in history or in politics. I know few people who match the total geekiness that is me. And, it is surprising how little Americans know of their own history. Many people have heard of “Kent State,” but, how many people have heard of “Jackson State?” Same year, 1970. My point is that The Help is another Hollywood attempt to teach history through a human-interest story. It’s what I call “infotainment,” the film informs and it entertains; otherwise no one would watch. “Real” history belongs on PBS.
The definitive Civil Rights movie along the lines I outlined, with black characters telling the story from the black point of view, has yet to be made. Mississippi Burning reduced African-Americans to extras, Ghosts of Mississippi did a bit better, and the only film I can think of, structured from the black point of view, that I have seen is Rosewood, a wonderful movie by John Singleton, who kept the white presence in its historical place. This last was a film almost no one went to see, black or white. Rosewood, a horrific true story of the destruction of a prosperous middle class African American community named “Rosewood” in North Florida in 1923, was a powerful and moving film—I have shown it to some of my classes—but it came and went without causing much of a ripple. But people will go and see The Help. Why? Because, as a Southern woman would say, “you catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar.”
Not that The Help is sugar; it is not. Yes, there are places to laugh, just as there are places to cry. And yet, this is a serious movie that comes out of a real history of a real place. If you were “a Negro” in the 1960s and you lived in Jackson, Mississippi, you lived in one of the most dangerous places in America. The movie captures some of the very real fear of white backlash experienced by the black maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) who talked to a young white woman (Emma Stone) about what it was like to be in bondage as maids to the white women of the Junior League. Those who have read Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, one of the best books about the black experience in the South…ever, know that if you were black and lived in the South, you experienced a constant and unmitigated reign of terror. Talking to a white person as an equal, like “Aibileen” and “Minnie” talked to “Skeeter,” was a death sentence, never mind that the maids were talking about their “betters,” the white women who exploited and humiliated and terrorized them.
The book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, was fiction, or so the author says. Stockett, who is being sued by her family’s maid, was born too late (1969) to have any authentic experience of those terrible years of the Civil Rights movement, especially in the early sixties. Her distance from history might account for the lack of weight and urgency in this film, but, as a native of Mississippi, Stockett should be commended for paying some sort of penance in her quasi-confessional story that is a tribute to the endurance of generations of oppressed African-American women.
Those who feel that the character of “Hilly Holbrook,” played by Bryce Dallas Howard, was an exaggeration or a caricature or was overplayed by the actor, should watch the news footage of attempts to integrate public schools in the South and look at the faces of the white protestors and listen to the voices of the women in the mobs. True, there is what Harris-Perry called “mean girl” atmosphere among the Southern women who played bridge to pass the heavy time but women like that were genuinely mean, cruel and racist in real life. People like that, women like that, still exist today, to be sure, but today’s culture does not countenance that kind of behavior. In 1963, these women would have had no shame in their actions and no understanding that they were monsters.
In the presentation of the matriarchy, the film lets the men of Jackson off easily. “Skeeter” falls briefly for the unlikely wooing of a frat boy-alcoholic in the oil business (Chris Lowell), but otherwise the males leave the home front and the running of the maids to their wives. The men had other things to do, such as enforcing the iron laws of Jim Crow and the terror atmosphere of segregation through insanely unconstitutional laws and plain old brutality. The wives are the second line of offense against the black citizens of Jackson who are not allowed to vote or eat at local restaurants or sit in the main auditorium of the movie theater or sit in the front of the bus or try on clothes in the department store or use the restroom in the houses they cleaned. My mother spent her entire life in the South and there was a mysterious toilet in her basement. Its presence was incomprehensible to me, for like Kathryn Stockett, I left the South early and never looked back. Why was there a toilet in the basement, sitting exposed without any kind of privacy? My mother never confessed or explained. I was an adult before I caught on: it was the maid’s toilet.
The Help starts with the toilet issue. Maids were expected to work twelve or fourteen hour days in a white home without using the toilet. That is what segregation meant. The line between black and white had to be held at all times and in all places. The space—and it was a wide space—and unbridgeable gulf—between maid and employer could never be bridged. One slip, one acknowledgement that your black maid was also a human being, and the entire edifice of inequality would come tumbling down. It was a strange system in which white women entrusted their children to black maids and yet could not share the toilet with them.
The Help does make clear that, like slavery, segregation of the races was a social system that poisoned the souls of the perpetrators. Like slavery, segregation was a kind of psychological illness that dehumanized the enforcers who thought they were dehumanizing those whom they abused. Make no mistake; the housewives in The Help were very dangerous to the black maids. The South had spent millions of dollars duplicating public facilities so that blacks and whites would never come into physical contact. This region of the county was the poorest but no amount of money was too much to keep “our way of life” intact.
One of the blessings of the Civil Rights era was the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, who taught non-violence, love and forgiveness. All the violence of the sixties came from one side, the white side, the side that had the most to lose. And here is where The Help reads false: that black maids would never trust a white person with their lives. In Mississippi, a black person was not allowed to look into the eyes of a white person. “Aibileen” had raised seventeen white children and every one of these children repudiated her as adults and did not think twice about reinforcing a shameful social situation of unconscionable injustice. The white child was not allowed to use the word “Mrs.” when addressing the maid, she would be permitted to employ only first names, and the child was taught not to shake hands with a black person.
This is the region of the nation where a thirteen-year old boy was beaten to death because he spoke to a white woman, where three Civil Rights workers were murdered because they tried to register blacks to vote, where blacks were trapped inside a bus that was then set on fire by a white mob because the Freedom Riders wanted to use a white waiting room. Under no circumstances would a black woman (“Minnie”) serve a white woman (“Hilly”) a pie make of her poo and then admit it. Serve the poo pie, yes, admit it, never. The film burdens one character, “Hilly,” with almost all the racism of the region and carefully presents a number of “good” white people who are “enlightened” about race. But these white characters are without power or leadership. Allison Janney plays “Skeeter’s” mother who regrets she fired the family maid but she is dying, and the young couple, “Celia and Johnny Foote” (Jessica Chastain and Mike Vogel), who are finally nice to “Minnie,” are social outcasts. Despite the good feelings, no one ever thinks to offer Social Security to The Help.
But it’s 1963 and the conversation on race is not quite ten years old and Mississippi is getting ready to experience its close up on national television. The Help sketches a glimpse of a precarious culture about to be visited by the conscience of the Twentieth Century, a culture on the edge of violent change.
So The Help is a sweet gentle film, a fragile fantasy, but it is a teachable moment. The audience is led to identify, not with Skeeter who isn’t particularly interesting, but with the victimized and proud black maids in their gray and white uniforms. The acting, especially that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, is worthy of Oscars.
One can justly complain that black women should have better roles in Hollywood and that Davis, who is beautiful and luminously talented is way over due for her star turn, and one can argue that it is a questionable decision to ask these women to speak as if they were characters in Uncle Remus—but they shine and out perform everyone else on the screen. It would have been nice to have the maids speak dialect in the homes of white people and communicate among themselves in normal dialogue, a device that worked so well in Skin Game.
I think the film’s merits outweigh its faults and that what it has something very valuable to offer to people who are too young to remember the Civil Rights era and to those who have never lived in the South. The Help is not just a watch and learn film; it is a watch and enjoy movie; it is laugh and cry movie. Do Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer a favor, honor their performances and see this movie.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger
Tags: Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, by Isabel Wilkerson, by Kathryn Stockett, Emma Stone, Freedom Riders on PBS, Jessica Chastain, John Singleton, Lawrence O’Donnell, Melissa Harris-Perry, Mike Vogel, Octavia Spencer, Rosewood, Sissy Spacek, The Help, The Last Word, Viola Davis, Warmth of Other Suns