Sunday, August 21, 2011

'The Help' is a Good Story, for Any Age

(reprinted from today's Times and News-Star)

Southern and funny but more serious than sentimental, “The Help” opened No. 2 at the box office last weekend.

In kindergarten vernacular, “No. 2” actually plays a big role in the movie. But I don’t want to spoil anything, but “The Help” at No. 2 seems maybe a mild form of poetic justice, all the way around.

The movie is set in Jackson, Miss., in the Civil Rights Era of the early 1960s and adapted to screen from the 2009 novel of the same name. It serves as a cinematic reminder that any of us who grew up in the 1960s in the South didn’t leave the decade without stepping in something.

“The Help” spotlights the life of the aspiring writer Skeeter, a young white woman home in Jackson the summer after her graduation from Ole Miss, and her sudden unrehearsed calling to write a book, anonymously, about the black maids in town and what their lives are like while working for white families, often raising white children. The races are intimate, yet divided.

The stars of both book and movie are characters Aibileen Clark and the scene-stealing Minny Jackson, career maids, the “help.” I have known them both – on the surface. I have known everyone in the movie, at least on the surface.

For more than a year I’ve been told to read the book. “It’s when we grew up,” a friend said. “I mean, you’ve GOT to read it. It’s history. You were there.”

I trusted the author, Kathryn Stockett, because, though she grew up privileged, she did grow up in Jackson. So she was there. With a maid. And I was there too, although in a tiny town and with no maid. Our maid was me and my sisters and my mother.

In tobacco fields back then, we – blacks and whites, of which there were only a few -- all drank out of the same green plastic cup, with tobacco gum all over it. We were friends. And as I grew and then moved from that town, I thought I had a good understanding of what it was like to be black. This was stupid. I was there, but I didn’t know a thing and still know very little about what it was like to be black in the South in the 1960s. “The Help” reminded me of that.

So two weeks ago, I started the book. Finished on the movie’s opening Saturday and squeezed into a packed house to watch the show with an audience mixed, both in race and age, and a bit unusual for my theater experience in one respect; I haven’t seen this many white senior citizen females together since the church potluck.

When the movie was over, the audience clapped with enthusiasm, a rarity these days.

In the book’s afterword, Stockett notes this passage from Howell Raines’s “Grady’s Gift,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning essay about his family’s maid when he was a boy in Alabama:

“There is no trickier subject for the writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.”

But wisely we keep trying, and to do that, to continue to try to understand each other, stereotypes and reality, we can all use some Help.