SAN FRANCISCO—I saw a surprisingly good Hollywood movie last week, unexpected because black working women are rarely at the center of a mainstream film.
There were some well known aging actors as well, and that alone is unusual for Hollywood and its youth obsession.
The Help, based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, is a story about a young white woman who writes a book based on stories she is told by black maids working in the South in the 1960s.
There it is – the hard-labored life of black mothers in 1963, women squeezed between the violent caprices of white Mississippi society and the dangerous rise of the civil rights movement. Set in Jackson, Miss., the film’s tableaus of domestic workers struggling to get along with the daily tensions of the Jim Crow South churn around news of the growing civil rights struggle and reach a fevered pitch with the assassination in Jackson of black leader Medgar Evers.
So, for those who care about social justice, what’s not to like?
The N-Word and Fried Chicken
Two criticisms I’ve seen of The Help are the use of the N-word – and the stereotype some have tasted in the fried chicken of Minny Jackson, played brilliantly by Olivia Spencer.
Not only does The Help not shy from that history, but the assassination of Evers in Jackson in June 1963 is an important subcurrent of the film. Audiences see actual news footage of Evers stating his positions shortly before he was killed.
The night of his murder, Aibileen Clark (in a star turn by Viola Davis) is shown with another black commuter being ordered off the bus home because something terrible has happened, with the driver calling them by the N-word. Her fear of white brutality so palpitates her heart that she races home, stumbling hard along the way, Minny is then shown gathering her children around in the safety of their small home.
Let me get personal for a moment. I was a civil rights worker, a rank-and-file grunt at age 20, in rural Louisiana. It was the summer of 1965, and I wasn’t called a dirty “N-word lover.” The “N-word” didn’t enter our language then. And the full and real term was scary when I was on the receiving end of it.
Anyone, black or white, hearing the N-word in The Help should find it disturbing – that was how it was flung about by some whites. And in that ugly environment,in the day and age, I did not hear many black people tossing it around to each other. Listen to it in The Help and get mad – but at the culture that routinely demeaned black people – not at the film, which aims to tell it like it was.
How it was, how institutionalized race-hatred soured everything, including the soft lives of the white middle class, is depicted well in The Help. A good example of that is the Skeeter story line – she is the young white woman at the center of the story. Her romance with a young man who wins her heart by calling her smart and encouraging her to write what she believes in, ends when he dumps her -- firing her like an expendable housekeeper-- after learning that she is the author of a book titled The Help, telling the stories of the black maids.
There are some easy targets in the film. But the accusations that some blacks in the film are stereotypical because they speak in dialect and take pride in their fried chicken simply don’t hold up to an honest viewing of this movie.
As for the knee-jerk reactions about the fried chicken, my experience of the Deep South of the mid-1960s was that even among the bravest and most outspoken women I met in the movement, good food, and especially fried chicken, was a competitive sport. Every Sunday, our leader in New Roads, La., a woman named Tiny Hood, battered up fried chicken with a deep crunch and Louisiana tang I dream of almost a half-century later (and I can still taste her lemon ice-box pie).
Tiny and the others in our ragtag group of local activists put their lives on the line every day. And – to reviewers who have sneered at the character in The Help for showing unrepentant pride in her cooking – Tiny would never -- never -- serve up burned chicken.
Today Tiny (who was anything but) and the fictional Minny in The Help might be called master foodies, doyennes of Southern Cuisine. To me Tiny Hood has been a lifelong inspiration.
Scaring Hollywood Away?
Some criticism of this film is legitimate. Most of the white women in the movie are two-dimensional. One exception is the beautifully nuanced depiction of Celia Foote by Jessica Chastain, as the blonde who is shunned by a bevy of young housewives desperate to be part of the clique. And the weakest performance among an otherwise marvelous cast, is by Bryce Dallas Howard as the race-baiting and two-dimensionally callous Hilly.
However, the unwarranted attacks – that is, those imposing racial preconceptions and discomfort apart from the film’s own merits – can only defeat the intentions of many race-mired critics. How many more films exploring American racism will Hollywood produce in light of the current racial second-guessing? Will Hollywood run scared? And potential roles for these or other black actors in midlife or older could remain as scarce as ever.
In the Los Angeles Times, Stephen Farber called for better support for socially relevant middle-brow films. He chided younger critics “desperate to prove they’re hip, and so they champion esoteric, highbrow movies.”
Farber, a film critic for the Hollywood Reporter, stressed that “unlike the latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, specialized films depend on critical endorsements, and these movies are hurt by wan or downright hostile reviews.”
I’d love to see film dramas depicting people like the courageous African Americans I met almost 50 years ago, the brave and brilliant as wells as the misfits and nonconformists, who gave backbone and staying power to the movement. I’d like to see scripts showing frightened local leaders of the black middle class, who frowned at the “communists” they feared would rock the boat and bring their communities disaster. And no film that I’ve seen has shown how well-armed local blacks quietly kept racist onslaughts at bay against civil rights workers needing to remain nonviolent and unarmed.
But attacking a worthy film that does not get into these depths won’t help the cinematic cause of social justice, and it won’t give courage to the cowardly lions of Hollywood to finance, cast and send those stories to a theater near you.
I’m tempted to quip, “Give The Help a hand.” Yet the movie stands on its own merits, as the #2 film in the country right now. To me, The Help is an occasion to call for more open and in-depth depictions of race, rancor and resilience in America on its silver screens, if only Americans will give it a fair chance.
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