Monday, August 15, 2011
Most of the women in my life have read the book, The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s mega-best seller. I have not. But I overheard so many conversations about the novel that I knew I’d want to see the movie. The trailer got me.
For the first twenty or thirty minutes or so, I realized why there were so few others of my gender in the packed theater. As I scanned the room for other guys I thought to myself, this one is a serious, unapologetic chick flick of the first rank. (The stranger next to Carolyn struck up a conversation over the shared experience of reading the book, and then expressed shock that her husband [I] was there seated beside her. Hers, she explained, came up with a convenient excuse for missing the movie.) As The Help’s sound track quieted down for the dialogue scenes, I could hear the sub woofer explosions and rapid shots of automatic weapons firing in the next theater over. I figured all the other dudes must be over there watching some digital world blow up. But there I was, next to Carolyn, feeling like I had been secretly ushered into a bouquet jammed, flower scented, boutique sitting room to listen in on a pack of polished, coiffed, manicured, chattering women blissfully unaware that there was a male present.
I actually whispered a prayer of thanks that I was created male. Those opening scenes. Women can be so catty, so cruel. With a glossy smile, they can cut each other to pieces. Us guys do the same thing, I guess, but mainly on the field of athletic competition utilizing physical contact or scoring skill as our primary mode of establishing superiority. On a woman’s turf, the damage can be just as severe. But the warfare is verbal and the bloodshed emotional, even psychological.
Discrimination is a major theme of the book and the movie. That first part of the film, as I have explained, I was most acutely aware of the gender discrimination, which was, in the Jackson, Mississippi of the early 1960s, as pronounced and stark as all those other segregations and stereotyping. This is a woman’s world. No men allowed. Maybe at no other time in history – the white, post-Gone-With-The-Wind South – were gender roles so clearly differentiated.
But as I grew accustomed to the company of these women, I tuned in to the powerful performances and the great characters. Minny and Aibileen transform from necessarily passive housemaids to a powerful pair of warriors: Aibileen, quiet, simmering, intelligent; Minny, take-no-prisoners, quick-witted and daring. Minny’s outspoken, independent spirit gets her fired more than once. Her strength emerges when she takes on the ditsy blonde outcaste, Celia Foote.
This film (and the book) is really about that other discrimination – racial discrimination – when schools were as segregated as the public transportation and drinking fountains and diners. Stockett contextualized the film through her main character, Skeeter Phelan, whose college education has sensitized her and dreams of becoming a writer energize her research. Through her, we are reminded of the Jim Crow laws that had been protected by a Supreme Court ruling since the Reconstruction era in the aftermath of the Civil War. This was the early sixties, when Medgar Evers was murdered in the streets of Jackson just after President John Kennedy’s speech called for Civil Rights. The Help makes domestic workers a metaphor for the epic social change unleashed nearly fifty years ago.
Bryce Dallace Howard was interviewed on how she could possibly play the role of that despicable social butterfly with a supremacist’s determination. She explained that the breakthrough came when she realized that her character, Hilly Holbrook, really believed that her obsessive commitment to segregation was in everyone’s best interest. She believed she was right. She considered her activism noble, courageous and virtuous. She also got the confirmation of the political establishment, and enjoyed the admiration of her friends. Her proposed legislation, to require every household to provide separate toilets for (colored) domestic helpers won wide support.
All of us cheered the victories of Minny and Aibileen over Hilly and her detached, insensitive battle for superiority; her tireless efforts to preserve a separation that she argues will her prevent the “contamination” of the races. As Aibileen explained, her strength “came from God.”
Both the book and the film have critics from both ends of the political spectrum. Some believe the story exaggerates the problem. Others believe Stockett’s book and the film understate the problem and leave out too much. But this is a work of fiction. This is storytelling. A novel will never satisfy the academic crowd on either side. That’s why, in addition to the novel, we have the dissertation.
As the world shrinks and our neighborhoods become less and less homogenized, we still have much to learn from the Civil Rights era. The Help presents us with an ideal. Barriers can be eliminated. “Let the walls fall down,” wrote Billy Batstone.
When we listen, when we care, we develop mutual respect… even affection.
As Aibileen took little Mae Mobley in her arms, she taught her to say, “I’m kind. I’m smart. I’m important.”
Copyright Kenneth E. Kemp
Note – a good friend and LeaderFOCUS reader, Jim Adkins has written a terrific book in which he addresses the issue of racism. Take a look.