Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Help

Background:  In 2000, my wife and I found ourselves driving through Mississippi.   We'd driven to our daughter's graduation on the East Coast, and after a stop in Chicago, we were headed to visit relatives in New Orleans.  I realized, as we crossed the border, that I held deep feelings about Mississippi.  It felt like a place a forbidden place - sort of like Albania.  We were only there two days, but in that short time, there were two conversations that give a sense of how race was still an important issue.

We'd walked up the levee to look into a floating casino when a couple began talking to us.  Being in a car with Alaska license plates seemed to give us a neutrality.  We may be from the north, but not that North.  After only a few minutes, we were being told that one had to send one's children to private schools and a lot of nasty stuff about how impossible the Black population was.  (I'm not stupid, and I probably wouldn't have subjected my kids to being the only White kids in a Black school where racial tension was high.  But why have things gotten to that point?  And I actually don't even know that it would have been dangerous for my kids.  But I do know that Mississippi schools are pretty low in achievement and I probably wouldn't have wanted my kids in a White school in Mississippi either.)

The second conversation was pretty surreal.  We were looking into boat rides on the Mississippi when a local gentleman - all the Southern hospitality you see in the movies - began to offer us advice.  It was a delightful encounter until he morphed into something else.  He switched the topic to the movie Mississippi Burning and how it totally distorted what had happened in Mississippi in the 1960s.  All those degenerate Northern agitators, smoking dope and having sex, coming down to tell us how to live our lives.  We didn't have a race problem - everyone got along just fine.  He said he'd been a high school student at that time.  And then he morped back into the charming Southern gentleman who'd begun the conversation and gave us advice for where to have dinner that night.  And we had a very good meal there.

The Help

My wife told me it was a chick flick and I probably wouldn't want to go.  But then she said some other things that I interpreted as it being better for our relationship if I went.  I knew nothing about the movie before it started - a good way to see a movie.

At dinner afterward we talked about the movie.  She mentioned a critique she'd heard from a black reviewer who felt that a white woman shouldn't have been the central character in the movie.  (It's about a recent white college graduate, Skeeter, in Mississippi who wants to be a writer.  All her old high school friends seem to be more interested in finding husbands than finding jobs.)

The film starts in 1962 (Medgar Evers was shot in 1963 and I'm guessing it begins the summer before that) and one of the key topics at her friends' bridge parties is whetther they allow the 'colored' help to use the same bathrooms as the family uses.  Skeeter notices that these conversations take place in front of the help.  She gets the idea of writing a book from the perspective of the Black help.

I've criticized other movies - Blood Diamonds, The Constant Gardener, and particularly The Last King of Scotland - for using white main characters in what are essentially movies about Africa and Africans. So I had to think about whether the criticism was valid here.  The fact that I assumed the film was based on a true story probably affected my acceptance of Skeeter's central role.  When I learned it was fiction,  the criticism seemed more valid.   Was it any more plausible that a White woman would be able to conceive of such a book and get it published in 1963 than the Black women themselves?  I can think of reasons why it might be, but I'm not sure either way.

But that didn't distract from the power of the movie to charmngly bring home how insidious segregation was.  And it wasn't that long ago - not yet 50 years.  The young college grads in the movie would be in their late sixties or early seventies now.  And while some of them may have changed, others would still hold many of the racial beliefs they were raised with.

And from there we can understand the revulsion felt by some at the idea of a Black president.  I'm not suggesting everyone who lived in that time and place is still trapped in that mindset.  Nor am I suggesting that everyone opposed to Obama is motivated by race.   But as the incidents I told at the beginning show, those attitudes were still easy to find in Mississippi just eleven years ago.  And the extreme animosity shown toward the President by some - along with racially charged words like 'boy' and 'dark skinned' that some have used - convinces me that race is a factor in some people's reaction to Obama.

And right after we saw the movie,  we heard the story of White kids who killed a 49 year old Black man in the very town the movie took place - Jackson, Mississippi.

The biggest surprise I got at the movie, was when the White audience in the 3/4 full theater (one of the big ones at the Century) applauded at the end of the film.   Made me feel much better about folks in Anchorage.

By the way, one of the first things we did when we got back to Anchorage in 2000 was to rent the film Mississippi Burning and we had little trouble figuring out which characters might have been the man who'd suggested such a great place to eat.


  1. That attitude was still going on in Mississippi when we went through it last summer. We were really ready to get out of the state, and don't ever want to go back. Black people looked through us like we were not there. White people were more than happy to talk to us. We went to Jackson to see Medger Evers house. When we stopped to get gas around the corner, people at the convenience store looked at us weird. We finally realized it was most likely because they didn't have white people stop by too often. The vibe in the state was just not a good one.

  2. "The Help" is a hopelessly saccharine white lady's version of her south in the 1960s. There is no way on earth any black maid would EVER have spoken so intimately to any young white college woman, no matter how close and loving their relationship may have been. There's a huge difference between affection and trust, a fact that escaped the notice of the author. Huge.

    Stafford's book fails to illuminate the atmosphere of fear within which black people live[d] in Mississippi and all other areas of the south and north and east and west. It thus fails also to show what great courage it took, and takes, to walk about in dark skin.

  3. After reading the first couple chapters of the book, I put it down and never looked back. Wasn't interested in reading yet another slanted story on how white woman saves black woman. (Not even the inclustion of the talented Sissy Spacek could get me to see the movie.)

  4. Anne, Omamma, and akbright,

    I hear you all. There are lots of issues for dealing with fiction. And having been involved with Healing Racism in Anchorage for a long time, I also realize that getting many Whites to 'get' the problems, it can't be too confrontational to where they are. This movie did get some of the nastiness, but it clearly was sugarcoated, so that a cautious audience to get some of what was going on and yet feel good when they left the theater. Is that a good thing? Or does it make it seem not so bad? I don't know. But a lot of people who don't know this stuff got a taste of what segregation was like that th
    ey wouldn't have.

    But your reservations are certainly valid.


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