Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Help


There’s been a lot of controversy, of the kind I try not to pay a lot of attention to. How dare a white woman write a book that tries to get into the heads of black maid/nannies in 1963? That sort of thing. But there was one article that made me think, about “White savior movies.” You know the story, you’ve seen it dozens of times. A white person comes into a community of (insert non-white minority here), and solves a pressing problem by leading in one way or another. They can be brown (Lawrence of Arabia), red (Dances With Wolves), yellow (The Last Samurai), or even blue! (Avatar) (Yeah, stretching a point … but there IS a point.) Black? Try Invictus, or even Hairspray. My own personal choice for the worst of these was Mississippi Burning, not so much because the saviors were white FBI agents, but because they were FBI. Pissed me off! Hoover’s FBI was actively trying to discredit and destroy the civil rights movement, he didn’t give a damn about black churches burning or little black girls getting blown up!

There have been a ton of these films set in schools with black or brown kids, where the white teacher comes in and teaches them self-respect. I’ll bet you can think of five without trying hard. MADTV had a hilarious send-up of those movies.

So, I do understand the objection. I even agree with it, to a point, and I can see why some black people are dead tired of these movies. Why not tell our story, from our point of view? Well, the fact is, it’s a lot easier to sell a story like this if it has a white star to build the story around. Just a fact of life. And I have to say, from my own perspective, that I’m a sucker for movies like this. They are usually based on fact—though also usually jazzed up quite a bit. If you get into the real story of The Blind Side, for instance, you’ll see it didn’t all transpire just like it did in the movie. But I loved The Blind Side! So sue me! (No, wait, don’t! That I don’t need.)

This movie will break your heart, probably even more if you come from the South, like I do. I can remember my grandmother telling me that Negroes (not the word she used) were dirty. I believed her. Just look at the palms of their hands! Is that dirt down in the cracks, or just melanin? This, from a woman whose livelihood was derived from Granddaddy’s Duke & Ayres 5&10cent store in Corsicana, Texas, where at least half of the patrons were black. And the restroom in the back was WHITE ONLY, and the drinking fountain had a little spigot off to the side for COLORED, and the movie theater next door admitted COLORED only to the balcony.

However, our Texas racism seems a bit mild compared to what we see here in 1963 Mississippi. I don’t know how Texas housewives treated their maids; we were not from the social strata that employed them. I recall a young woman who came in and did ironing for us, probably the only black person who ever entered our home. She did her job and got out, never speaking to me. (She was probably terrified of this six-foot-six white dude.) But these white ladies … oh my god. One is leading a drive to require all white households with “help” to install a separate toilet for their use. Another seems to think she can will her maid to her daughter, just like her grandmama did back in the Good Old Days.

To wade through the garbage in the diseased minds of these women is hard slogging, trying to figure out their logic. I mean, they give their children to these black women to raise. If they’re so freaking dirty, how does that make sense? They think nothing of having Negroes prepare their food, both at home and in restaurants. (One maid prepares a very special chocolate pie for the bitch that fired her. I won’t spoil the surprise; it was one of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. I suspect that, in the South, there was sometimes as much spit on the plates as actual food.)

A reviewer from the LA Weekly raised what I think is an extremely interesting question. “Why do little white girls who are raised lovingly by black maids turn into raging racist assholes once they’ve grown to run their own households?” Boy, that’s a movie I’d like to see, though I have a hard time seeing how to dramatize it. These children love their nanny/mammy/maids. How can that thought co-exist in someone’s mind with the idea that Negroes are filthy, stupid, sub-human animals suitable only for horrible exploitation?

Enough race relations. The movie itself is well-made, and there are great performances in it. The big question, to me, is which of the two black stars, the quiet Viola Davis or the volatile, funny Octavia Spencer, should get nominated for the Oscar. Probably both of them. The other performances are good, too: Emma Stone as Skeeter, the girl who is writing the book about the maids, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, and Allison Janney. It’s definitely an acting bonanza for the women. In fact, I can hardly recall anything about any of the men, who pretty much stay in the background. That’s cool with me. It wasn’t their story. I recommend this one.

DVD: There is one of the better “making of” documentaries on this one. The writer, Kathryn Stockett, and the screenwriter/director, Tate Taylor, are natives of Jackson, Mississippi, and have been close friends since 5th grade. They both were raised by maids, who they loved. When she found out she had a best-seller on her hands and Hollywood came calling, she insisted that Taylor get the project. Nobody wanted to do that, they wanted a name director, but she stuck to her guns. He was also close to Octavia Spencer and Allison Janney. It all had the air of a family project, and it was quite heartwarming to see. Lord knows there is still racism in the South, and everywhere else, but a lot of progress has been made since 1963.