Saturday, August 27, 2011

Loving "The Help"

I can’t help it, I loved “The Help” – both the book and the movie – in spite of some obvious flaws. The biggest flaw was the whole concept of the snooty bitches club (not the real name) – a bunch of spoiled, rich, self-centered and superficial women lorded over by a despicable and underhanded queen bee. Sure, it’s fun to pepper the film with a bunch of socialites we can love to hate, but it’s been done way too often and it’s not realistic. Not even for Jackson, Mississippi when JFK was in the White House and KKK-and White Citizens Council-loving Ross Barnett was occupying the governor’s mansion. Even for that time and place it is a gross exaggeration. But Bryce Dallas Howard is wonderful as the hateful queen bee, “Hilly.” It’s such a joy to see her get her comeuppance. And boy, does she ever get it!

The story is set at about the time I was a senior in high school or maybe a freshman in college in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 90 miles south of Jackson. Ours was a middle class family. Like most middle class families in the South back then, we had a maid. But no one in our family and, as best I can remember, none of the families of my friends ever treated their maids so horribly. I’m not saying it didn’t happen in some homes, but I never saw it. What I did observe and what I believe most white Southerners of my generation can attest to is that there was a kind of paternalistic relationship between whites and their black hired help that was for the most part unintentionally demeaning but not mean spirited.

I certainly can’t deny that racism was rampant. It was every bit as bad as depicted in this and other films about the South from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Mississippi Burning.”  But as rampant and institutionalized as racism was, we have to realize that books and movies have to be dramatic; they tend to take the exception and present it as the norm, so a few rednecks and a few sleazy politicians stand for society as a whole. “The Help” does it in spades.

The white families I knew were nothing like the white families in “The Help.” But I didn’t grow up in Jackson and I’m aware that there was a segment of society in parts of Mississippi, most notably in Jackson and the Delta, that was totally different and maybe a little more extreme than the rest of the state. So maybe the society Kathryn Stockett wrote about was more typical than I think. I did run into one or two women in Mississippi who were almost as snooty as Hilly and her friends, but none who were quite so mean. None of the people I knew were quite as wealthy as some of these families, and maybe the upper crust were more like these people; but I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Jackson and were extremely wealthy, and my aunt did all the cooking and house cleaning herself. If they even had a maid she was part-time, and I never saw her on any of our many visits.

In the book much more than in the movie it was shown that not all white-black relationships were so demeaning. There were a few healthy relationships as well, which was barely implicated in the movie when all the maids came forward to tell their stories.

Another thing that didn’t ring true was the army of maids in their identical uniforms catching the bus every morning to go to work for their white women. That was almost surrealistic. I never saw any such thing in Mississippi. When I lived there maids wore simple house dresses – more often than not hand-me-downs from their employers – not uniforms.

Yet another thing that seemed something of a cliché and not realistic was the repeated establishment shots of a lone car racing down the dirt road between fields on the way to Skeeter’s ancestral home. Weren’t there scenes like those in “Hud” and in “Giant”? I can’t remember for sure, but it seems I’ve seen those scenes many times in other movies, and it looked more like the Delta than anything close to Jackson.

Throughout the movie I kept thinking of Steven Spielberg. It wasn’t directed by Spielberg but it seemed to me that the director, Tate Taylor, was highly influenced by him. It had the same look and style as many of Spielberg’s films, most notably “The Color Purple.” Taylor, by-the-way, was born and raised in Jackson.

One final personal observation:  The idea of forcing maids to use separate bathrooms may have been something a person as nasty as Hilly would have done, but if the implication was intended to be that it was a common practice, that’s a huge exaggeration. Our maid used the same bathroom we used for the simple reason that it was the only one we had. Separate public bathrooms were the law of the land, but not typical in private homes. On the other hand, the crazy myth that blacks had special Negro diseases that could be caught by white folks if they weren’t careful… that and similar myths were common when I was growing up in Mississippi. I even heard, as a worst case example, that black men were more afraid of knives than guns because they had thick skulls that bullets wouldn’t penetrate. Why anyone would believe such an absurd thing is now beyond me. But that and similar myths were fairly common. Which leads me to the realization that maybe I’m totally wrong after all and nothing that could be said about white society in Mississippi in 1960 could possibly be too absurd to be believed.

Enjoy the movie, but don’t eat the pie.


Laurie said...

My daughter first read the book and we saw the movie last night....We loved it !and on anpther notedid you ever live there? i am looking for a Mary anne Clayton..
thank you !

Alec Clayton said...

Laurie, I lived in Jackson for a very short time in the late 70s. At the time the film was set I was living 90 miles south of Jackson. I don't know a Mary Anne Clayton.