How ‘The Help’ Helps Us Remember

Tonight, I saw the movie, The Help, and I enjoyed it. *Gasp* I’m a sucker for a good story, especially one set back in time. Pending lawsuits against the author, Kathryn Stockett, aside, the film brought on some mixed emotions about history, race and justice, but I left the theater satisfied, nonetheless.

There seems to be more criticism of the book and film than acclaim among the African-American community. In “I Don’t Need Kathryn Stockett’s Help” on the Loop 21, writer Jamilah Lemiuex wrote, “There is so much that is uncomfortable surrounding the black domestic worker. … I give respect to the women who did this work with their heads held high, but this is the last place I want to go to for entertainment.”

All movies shouldn’t be filed under “Entertainment” only. Some are made to open our eyes to an issue or to spark conversation. I think The Help is one of those movies.

I understand the uneasiness of it all: black women taking care of white women’s babies, spending more time with them than their own children for little pay, cleaning their homes, preparing their food, only to be made to eat in a back room and denied access to an inside bathroom. It’s painful to watch. It was painful to watch. There were more than a few times that tears welled in my eyes. I sat in my seat, let out sighs and a few expletives, and at one point, I didn’t want to watch anymore. But I also laughed. Hard. I reveled in how Minny and Abileen reminded me of so many black women I grew up around and know today. How they gave their ladies of the house mean side-eyes, yet smiled at each other because they held all their secrets in their hearts. I was born and raised in the South, just three hours away from Jackson, Miss. I knew these women.

These women weren’t saved by the Great White Hope similar to Driving Miss Daisy and my least favorite, The Blindside. They were given a voice to tell their stories to another audience, one that never cared what their experiences were. If anything about the relationship between black maids and white families, I have a problem with people like this who claim that employing blacks to work in their homes was a fairytale when the fact is it’s only that because they are oblivious to what goes on in the lives of black folks, and will continue to be. Period.

So, with that, I ask this: what are we afraid of? I get that African-Americans constantly being depicted in subservient roles is annoying, especially when we’ve accomplished so much, and some would even say the supreme having a black president in just 50 years. Two years in, we see that President Barack Obama isn’t the answer to racism (who really thought that?). It is still very much alive, no matter how many high seats we fill. Tera Hunter wrote in her New York Times op-ed piece, “Putting an Antebellum Myth to Rest,” that there is a “deliberate amnesia,” among some whites regarding our history in this country. Could it be that we have amnesia, too? There’s a major struggle within ourselves to bury the negative and only focus on the now, like ignoring that family member you can’t believe has the same blood running through his/her veins as you (the one who is unkempt, uneducated, addicted to drugs or just plain trifling). How can we ask them to remember slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow to acknowledge our pain if we sweep it under the rug ourselves?

Yes, those women were maids. I have friends whose grandmothers and aunts were maids. Today, many still are in hotels and homes. Why close our eyes to that when it actually happened?

The Help was written by a white woman who has no idea what it’s like to be a black, let alone a maid in 1960s Mississippi, but was raised by one until she was 16. In criticisms read, there are suggestions that we don’t need white people to tell our stories; leave that to us. I’m in full agreement, but I’m afraid that those stories that shaped us won’t be told by us because of vehement shame and disgust.

Some are outraged because the film is one that portrays us as a “lesser,” instead of in a more positive role, and heaven forbid, it might win a Globe  or Academy Award. In yesterday’s story on Ebony.com, Viola Davis, who plays the main character, Abileen, said, ““They say that true emotional health is when you give up all hope of a different past. You can’t create it for yourself and create some lies and just accept the part of history where we were the winners, where we were the courageous ones. You have to accept all of it.”

Our stories have to be told, and the great thing is that we’re apart of so many different ones. Stories of nannies, drivers, first-time Navy divers, actresses and entertainers who had to enter the theater through the back, civil rights leaders and yes, even the President of the United States.

We owe it to all the Abileenes and Minnies, and even men and women in your families who labored to get us to where we are today. Their sacrifices weren’t in vain. A final line in the movie says, “God says to love your enemy. And it’s hard sometimes, but you have to talk about it.” It’s time to stop hiding and speak.

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6 thoughts on “How ‘The Help’ Helps Us Remember

  1. I am currently reading the book and I plan to take my mom to see it……I hate that people want to sweep this subject under the rug….I also think that it is important for us to see this not as entertainment but as educational…..so many young people do not realize that we as a people had to fight to have a voice…..and so many are lost, without knowing their history.

    • Exactly! We’re so “post-racial” that we forget it wasn’t even 50 years ago that Jim Crow was in effect. We need to do more talking to our elders.

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