Have you seen the movie ‘The Help‘ or read the book by the same title? Girlfriend Jennifer Buehrle Williams shares her thoughts on the story and her experience living in the south in this great guest blog and movie review of ‘The Help.’
It’s not often I find myself so riveted to a screen that I can’t find two minutes to scoot out and take a quick pee break. But there I was, sitting smack dab in the middle of a crowded theater on a Saturday afternoon, my bladder full to bursting (damn those movie-sized sodas) but unwilling to stumble over the 60+ year old women flanking me on both sides to make a quick exit to the ladies room.
Such was the hold “The Help” had on me. I didn’t want to miss one second, not one sassy comment, not one meaningful sidelong glance. Every nuance of this movie was important to the telling of the story. The good, the bad, the ugly, the funny. Even at 2 hours 17 minutes, lengthy by current movie standards, I just knew if I missed one minute, I would have missed something important. That is a credit to Tate Taylor’s screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel of the same name.
While I found the book fascinating, I was surprised at how moved I was by the film. You see, this movie wasn’t about me…at all. I have southern friends, black and white, for whom it hits very close to home. But I viewed myself as an outsider getting a glimpse of a life very far removed from my own. Growing up in a middle class family in the midwest in the 70‘s and 80‘s, there was most certainly no “help.” While I can’t say there was no racial division or stereotyping, my community in southwest Ohio (albeit, mostly white) lacked the complicated relationships many southern white families had with black women. The Jim Crow south was something we touched on in school. It was history.
My slow (and still evolving) education in all things southern began when I moved to North Carolina after college, then to Tennessee and back again. Charity balls, BBQ, the confederate flag…these were real and controversial topics of the day. As a young television anchor in Chattanooga in the 1990‘s, a shadowy figure from the history books suddenly came alive for me. Byron De La Beckwith, the man long suspected and finally convicted of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, during the time period “The Help” was written about, lived in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, a suburb of Chattanooga. If a reporter was ever looking for an inflammatory or racist comment, you could count on De La Beckwith to spew his white supremacist venom. The more controversial or outrageous the comment the better. It’s the part of tv news (and society) that is sad, pandering, and quite frankly, disgusting. Thankfully, I never had to walk up to his rickety old mountain house with a confederate flag hanging defiantly off the front porch. But I still came face to face with him on modern day tv. A man who killed another human being because of the color of his skin. And he only lived in the next town over. That was close enough for me. Looking back though, I realize I still didn’t get it. I just thought he was an uneducated, racist, southern redneck who committed an atrocious crime. I still didn’t understand the damage he and people like him had caused to so many others, to a whole race, to a whole country.
But “The Help” crystallized that for me. I can see how this way of life, that so many deemed acceptable at the time, caused collective damage to the psyches of countless Americans, white and black, that would/will take decades, possibly even centuries to overcome. From where I stand today, the injustice and downright absurdity of a society like this is clear. But the movie did a wonderful job of using this snapshot in time—this town, these women, children and families—to offer up a very human and often relatable perspective of how it was and how it came to be. I suppose when you look at the roots of slavery, this “separate but equal” lifestyle (in name only, of course) may have seemed a great evolution for African-Americans. And maybe that is the road freedom and equality had to take. But that seems to me to be a bit of a cop out. Mostly what I kept thinking is how this living/working arrangement was able to continue because “everyone was doing it.” Just doing…not questioning. As long as it was being accepted, it could be perpetuated. So many followers, so few leaders.
These were not necessarily “bad” people (although some were) but the vast majority it seems lacked courage. In “The Help” we saw the humanity, both flawed and beautiful, of the black and white protagonists. Even as they were degrading or doing the “terrible awful” to one another, they were also loving each others’ children or helping one another navigate through the injustices of being part of the “wrong” race, the “wrong” socio-economic class, the “wrong” profession. It was the classic love/hate relationship. But courage? Courage seemed to be in short supply, or as Allison Janney stated in her excellent portrayal of Skeeter’s long suffering mother, “sometimes courage skips a generation.”
So, as my eyes welled with tears at the many unjust moments in the movie, so too did they moisten during the courageous moments. This movie allowed me to see, honestly, where these women were coming from, even if they were woefully misguided. As a white woman and journalist in the 21st century, I cheered Skeeter and her convictions, hoping that would have been me in a different time and place. And I’m sure many of my African American counterparts would fancy themselves an Aibileen or a Minnie.
I am so grateful we have come so far. Yet even as I write that, I know as a white woman not raised in the south, there is still much I don’t and can probably never understand. I was acutely aware of that as the closing credits rolled. There was quiet in the packed theatre…then clapping. Not thunderous applause mind you, but an almost timid sound as soft palms came together. A few more joined in. Who was clapping? Who wasn’t? What was the 70 year old white woman sitting down the row thinking or the black woman sitting a few rows behind me? Was it just me or upon exiting the theatre was everyone just a little more polite, a little more conscious of those around them? Shame, anger, guilt, pride, gratitude, relief…I am certain all of those emotions were being felt somewhere in the crowd.
But for any argument or debate over the book, and now the movie, there is little doubt it has succeeded in educating, in a most compassionate way, generations of Americans who didn’t live those lives but have lived with the repercussions. I understand more intimately than any history book could ever teach me about a place this country once was…a place I pray it will never be again.
Jennifer Buehrle Williams resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, but is adamant that her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, gets proper credit for being the home of the Wright Brothers and birthplace of aviation. A former television anchor/reporter, she now freelances as both a broadcast and print journalist. However, her most challenging work is at home where she is trying to raise three children before they realize she is making it up as she goes along.