Where This Meets That
Growing up, I had a lot of family around Jackson, Mississippi. I also had grandparents in northern Mississippi who employed maids who always happened to be black. I remember having qualms about this as a small child because I couldn’t then differentiate the concept of black maids from my elementary understanding of slavery. And, of course, growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, I lived not two miles from the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Thankfully, I don’t recall ever seeing the Klan in their “kostumes.”
All these components of my early life made last year’s revered film The Help an intriguing watch for me.
The film tells the story of young, aspiring writer Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) and her efforts to write a revolutionary book from the perspective of the “hired help” in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi.
Growing up, Skeeter was essentially raised by her family’s maid, Constantine. Now a college graduate pursuing a career, she sees the world through new eyes. Her long-time friends have grown venomous in their racist attitudes, using their social status as license to further widen the gulf between blacks and whites through legislation and slander.
Hilly Holbrook (played by Ron Howard’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard) begins the film as one of Skeeter’s best friends but represents the film’s primary antagonist. For example, she promotes a “separate but equal” social policy by pushing legislation requiring all white homes to have a separate bathroom for blacks. When one member of Hilly’s circle installs a bathroom in the carport, forcing the maid to use the restroom in the 100+ degree Mississippi heat, Hilly still acts as though its installation was a favor for the maid.
Skeeter decides there is a new story to be told from the perspective of “the help”, and she begins interviewing reluctant maids about their experiences working for white households.
The acting alone makes the film worth the watch. The Help received three Oscar nominations for acting and was worthy every one. Octavia Spencer took home the Oscar for her portrayal of plucky maid Minny Jackson. Also nominated were Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis. Davis was particularly captivating as quiet, reluctant heroine Aibileen Clark. Somehow lost to the Academy was Howard’s astoundingly detestable performance as “Two-Slice” Hilly (just watch and you’ll see).
The Help is a powerful reminder of just how recently removed we are from the evils of state-enforced racism. It also highlights those parts of us that are human regardless of color and celebrates the courage of so many who worked to breach the color barrier.