Can’t ‘Help’ but get misty eyed

“The Help” is a comforting view of the distant past, where the threat of violence isn’t as scarily gory as other movies and documentaries have shown it. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel of the same name, the movie takes place in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi and looks at the indignities and social oppression of women upon other women: wealthy white women upon their black maids and housekeepers. “The Help” opened today at various theaters in and around Pasadena.

Jackson was a hotspot for the Civil Rights Movement. On 24 May 1961, 300 Freedom Riders were arrested, ending their journey to New Orleans. On 12 June 1963, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered and it wasn’t until 1994 that a man was finally convicted.

Evers is mentioned in both the book and the movie and there’s a slight problem with accuracy. But before we get into that, you must know that there are the protagonist is a white privileged woman, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), just graduated from school with a journalism degree and no husband.

Skeeter returns home to find the maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) who raised her mysteriously gone and her mother, Charlotte (Allison Janey), who is suffering from cancer a bit vague about just what happened.

Her girlfriends from high school are all married. The high society seems to be tiered by age and the ruling mean girl of the junior league is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Skeeter gets a job as a columnist writing about housekeeping and cleaning at the local newspaper, topics she knows nothing about so she turns to Elizabeth Leefolt’s maid, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis). Missing her own maid and surrogate mother, Skeeter begins to sympathize with Aibileen and asks to write about the treatment of maids in a society that demands segregated bathrooms, restaurants and movie houses.  She sends a book proposal to a New York editor (Mary Steenburgen) who wants honest interviews with maids, but tells Skeeter she’ll need more than Aibileen.

Aibileen’s friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer) has a short fuse. She was the maid of Hilly’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek), but Mrs. Walters can no longer live by herself. When Mrs. Walters moves in with Hilly, Minny becomes Hilly’s maid. Minny gets fired, and doesn’t get mad–she gets even in more ways than one. The first way, I won’t spoil for you, but it is the source of much of the humor in the last half.

The second, is that Hilly believes that her former beau, Johnny Foote (Mike Vogel) was cheating on her with the woman he eventually married, Celia (Jessica Chastain). Celia is so white trash, that she doesn’t realize just how the “good folks” in Jackson are supposed to treat their colored servants. When she hires Minny, Minny tries to teach her how to behave as a good segregationist. Instead, Minny and Celia become friends.

Minny becomes the second convert to Skeeter’s project and it’s emphasized how dangerous it is for the three women to be collaborating. But the danger is distant and muted. We don’t see the brutality of either the men or the women and I mean the kind of ugliness that would lead to bruises, lynchings, and rapes.

Here the focus remains on women relating to other women as if some of those high society fathers, brothers and husbands weren’t members of the Ku Klux Klan and highly active in the subjugation and physical assaults of the black women.

There has been criticism leveled at the book. One wonders just how journalism was taught at Ole Miss (located in Oxford, Mississippi).  Oxford is three hours away by car, but surely the lessons were accuracy, accuracy, accuracy as well as a good dose of current events.

There is a blog devoted to critical review of the novel “The Help.” The blog comments on the Evers’ death and how the author mistakenly recalls it. The blog also notes that African American domestics did write books, although most were accounts of the situation in the North such as the 1965 “Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison,” and Lillian Rogers Parks’ 1961 “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House.” Parks’ account was the basis for a 1979 TV mini-series.

The author admits that she herself was raised by African American women,Demetrie. On her website Stockett writes about her love-hate relationship with her home state and a bit about her childhood and dependence on Demetrie.

And there’s something else. There is a woman called Ablene whose last name isn’t Clark but starts with the same letter. Ablene Cooper works for Stockett’s brother and sister-in-law. Like the character in the book, she has a gold tooth and her only son died of cancer. Cooper has filed a $75,000 lawsuit against Kathryn Stockett.

Stockett denies that there’s any resemblance between her Aibilene and Cooper. The case will be before a judge on 16 August 2011 who will decide whether to dismiss or allow the suit to go forward. Either way, just the names makes one wince. Overall, the lawsuit leads one to question Stockett’s motivation and understanding of race relations beyond Racism 101.

The whole affair reminded me of another lawsuit: Arthur Golden was taken to court for his 1997 “Memoirs of a Geisha.” by Mineko Iwasaki. Iwasaki wrote her own book, “Geisha, a Life” or, as it was known in the UK, “Geisha of Gion.”

Iwasaki settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and her own book became a bestseller. The Japanese in the 2005 Spielberg (producer) movie where mostly played by Chinese (Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li) and the Japan was purely imaginary.

For some, this movie falls into the uncomfortable genre of white person saving a minority or non-white. Written and directed by Tate Taylor, “The Help” is basically a formula feel-good fairytale that is well-acted and well made.  Spencer and Davis steal the movie from Stone. It’s nice to see Tyson and Spacek. The movie tells a good story more fable than reality. This is racism on a non-threatening level. Still there are scenes where I laughed and I did get misty eyed.

One wonders if a movie would have been made if the book had been written by a black woman with a more critical eye. Perhaps Cooper should follow Iwasaki’s lead (and Alice Randall’s) and write her own version of “Skeeter/Kathryn” and get some background from Demetrie’s family and friends. As in the movie, Aibilene becomes a writer (though we don’t know if she’ll find a NYC publisher), perhaps Cooper could set the record straight as well. Wouldn’t that be something?

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