The Help: as good as Hollywood gets on race

By Alan Bean

I wanted to like The Help, Hollywood’s adaptation Kathryn Stockett’s popular  novel.

Having read the reviews, I was pretty sure what I was getting myself into.  I did like the movie–as a movie.  Given the limitations of Hollywood storytelling, The Help was an enjoyable slice of popular entertainment.

Reviewers often refer to the movie as a “surprise success;” which is odd when you consider that the book was a big hit, especially with women, and the movie appears to be a faithful adaptation.  The middle-aged black woman standing in line next to us assured us that the movie got it right–she was seeing the film for the second time.

The Help is a chick flick.  There are few male characters (none of any consequence) and the audience was at least two-thirds women, most of them middle-aged or older.  The movie reminded me of Fried Green Tomatoes, a film about women in the South that centers on a particularly shocking image that is funny because it is shocking (humor is rooted in surprise).  I won’t spoil the story by telling you about the shocking image in The Help, but it definitely made the story go.

I can’t argue with the films critics.  There is something unnerving about watching yet another crew of hapless Negroes rescued by a dedicated white protagonist.  Unfortunately, a novel about black-white relations in Mississippi circa 1963 would be very difficult to publish; where’s the hook for white readers?  White entertainment consumers are like Baby Boomers–so ubiquitous that marketers ignore us at their peril.

The Help features scene after scene in which the young white heroine scribbles madly as black maids pour out their stories.  This reminded me of the years I spent researchingTaking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas.  A black storyteller may have been an asset in Tulia, and yet it fell to two white guys (Bean and Blakeslee) to tell the story.  I was determined to speak for  those who had no access to the media.  I wanted the story told in the words of those who lived it.  That’s what motivated the protagonist in The Help.

Better movies about civil rights era Mississippi could have been made; but this was the film that could be made.  The Help pushes the social/historical envelope about as far as it can be pushed in This Year of Our Lord 2011.  The much-anticipated Tulia movie never materialized.  The story was too messy for Hollywood.  American Violet told the much less publicized, but more straightforward, story of the Hearne drug bust.  The innocence of Regina Kelly, the primary protagonist, could be clearly established and that was necessary if your wanted to win the trust of a white audience.

Scratch beneath the surface and the Tulia saga was awash in ambiguity; not a strong selling point for Hollywood.

The same is true of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi.  Nothing was ever decided.  No clear-cut victories were won.  In the end, little changed in the short-term, and long-term gains have been offset by abiding poverty, rising levels of unemployment and mass incarceration.  No glorious endings there.  A few white folks were involved in the civil rights struggle in the Mississippi Delta, but you could count the Mississippians on the fingers of one hand.

In The Help, there are three kinds of white people: malevolent racists who humiliate Negroes for sport; weak white folks who go along with a racist culture even though they know its wrong; and virtuous white folks (three, actually) who, for some inexplicable reason, are  untainted by a racism that envelopes Mississippi like the moss and kudzu.  Missing are the nice, Baptist, middle class white folks who tried to be nice to their Negroes because that was the Christian thing to do, but who were so thoroughly enmeshed in an officially racist culture that they couldn’t see the rank injustice that was staring them straight in the face.

There were a few white people in Mississippi who fought on the right side of the conflict (Rev. Ed King comes to mind), but there is something miraculous, about people like Ed and, anyway, they constituted far less than 1% of the white Mississippi population in the early 60s.  For the most part, white folks were entirely blind to the evil of their racist affections and, more to the point, they remained that way, for the most part, in perpetuity.

The Help does a good job of rendering the oppressive aspects of Mississippi culture from the perspective of women in the thick of the terror.  The fact that simply telling their stories placed their livelihoods (and possibly their lives) in danger says a lot about the period.  But racism is generally presented as an ailment afflicting individuals.

Not surprisingly, the film largely ignores the civil rights movement. Middle America, even now, hasn’t come to terms with the hard truths that freedom struggle floated to the surface.   So Ms. Stockett wrote the sort of book that could be written in our kind of America and Hollywood produced the sort of film that could be produced.  We’re learning, but the lessons come slow.  The entertainment business, after all, is about telling us what we want to hear.  When publishers and movie moguls think we’re ready for stronger fare they will serve it up.  That day isn’t coming any time soon.