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We Live in Hell

THE HELP is one of the most popular films of the summer season. It was the number one movie at theaters three weeks in a row at the end of August and the beginning of September, despite having no so-called “A-list” Hollywood stars heading up the cast.

Written for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, and based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling book, it has also been the most controversial film of the summer, sparking a debate about the portrayal of African American women in Hollywood films.

The film is set in 1963 when the U.S. seemed perched on the edge of a new civil war. The year began with the courageous, springtime struggles of the Black citizens of Birmingham, Ala., to desegregate their city. The summer witnessed the murder of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, and the mammoth March on Washington that rallied 250,000 people on the mall in Washington, D.C.

In the fall, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in the Birmingham, killing four young Black girls. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover–despite having overwhelming evidence in his hands–refused to prosecute the killers. The year ended with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.

For The Help director Tate Taylor, these background events literally press in on the cloistered, domestic world of Jackson’s white ruling class. Both Tate and Stockett are natives of Jackson, Miss., and know that world well.

* * *

THE FILM begins with the return of “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) from college. She’s the daughter of an old aristocratic, plantation-owning family, whose best days seem behind them. She has never really fit in with the suffocating crowd of Southern belles she grew up with. Skeeter’s frizzy, red hair and independent spirit set her apart from her social set.

Skeeter is welcomed back with open arms by friends and family alike. They expect her to quickly marry and emulate their lifestyles, but she has other plans. She wants to be a writer and move to New York. Aside from this clash of expectations, Skeeter’s homecoming is marred by the absence of her beloved Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the Black maid who really raised her and provided the emotional support she needed during her teenage years.

Her mother’s non-explanation for the absence of Constantine enrages Skeeter, and a larger divide opens between her and her friends as she becomes increasingly appalled by their behavior toward the Black maids who do all of the cooking, cleaning and child rearing. But the world is changing. The lovely, coiffed ladies of Jackson’s ruling class are sitting on the edge of a volcano, but they choose to ignore it and obliviously go about their daily lives.

Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the leader of these small-time aristocrats, and she plays a more active role in the counterrevolution against the civil rights movement. Holbrook is pushing for passage of a state law that would mandate all homes employing Black servants have a separate bathroom for them on the premises. This is to protect the white children, Holbrook declares, and, anyway, isn’t it good for them to have their own toilets? Eventually, these turn out to be wooden outhouses.

The Help is very much a women-centered film where men–Black and white–are largely peripheral to the story. It is a world where white supremacy, strictly defined gender roles and class bigotry are all mashed together under one roof. There is an unbearable tension just below the surface.

The casual cruelty and condescending posture of Skeeter’s friends toward their Black maids is horrifying and enraging. They depend on them for everything and pay them nothing, while congratulating themselves on their alleged kindness. I’m sure that if the film was set 20 years later, all of Skeeter’s friends would be on anti-depressants privately bemoaning to their shrinks the meaningless lives they lead. I felt like strangling them while I watched the film.

Despite her college degree, Skeeter is only offered a job writing a column on cleaning tips for the local city newspaper. She takes it, but realizes that she knows nothing about cleaning, and asks Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), the Black maid of another friend, for help.

Skeeter soon realizes that, if she is ever to be taken seriously as a writer, she has to write something that will catch the attention of the New York literary crowd. She proposes to Harper’s editor Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen) that she write an exposé of Jackson’s rich, white families from the perspective of the maids. Stein agrees, but doubts she’ll succeed.

When Skeeter approaches Aibileen about her writing project, Aibileen thinks she’s nuts. She is afraid of losing her job and terrified of the prospect of vigilante violence–whichwhites were so easily capable of in Mississippi–if her identity was ever revealed.

One of the most harrowing scenes in the film is the night of Medgar Evers’ assassination, when Aibileen is ordered off a city bus and, fearing for life, flees through the dark streets of Jackson. She takes refuge in the home of her friend and fellow maid Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). Listening to the radio news reports of Evers’ death, Minny, huddling with her children, declares, “We live in hell.”

Slowly, Aibileen comes around and is joined by Minny, who gets back at her former boss, Hilly Holbrook, in a way that most of us can only dream of. They are later joined by dozens of other maids who tell their stories. Among the many horrifying things we learn is that maids are “willed” from one generation to the next–a whiff of slavery in the modern world.

The finished product is a book called The Help by Anonymous that is wildly popular in Jackson. Once it becomes clear who the real authors of The Help are–the maids themselves–Minny’s church rallies to support them.

* * *

SO IS The Help a good movie? I have to admit that I liked it. I really did get caught up in the story and the characters.

I say this as someone who felt a lot of trepidation as I entered the theater. Hollywood doesn’t have a great track record of portraying African Americans or the civil rights movement on film. For example, only in Hollywood could FBI agents be turned in civil rights heroes as they were in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning.

Davis and Spencer make the movie, and if it weren’t for them, it would be a far inferior production. However, having some of the best Black actors in Hollywood like Davis and Spencer play maids is part of a long and demeaning tradition, despite the wonderful performances that they give.

Whoopi Goldberg once recounted a story from her childhood in which, while watchingStar Trek for the first time and seeing Uhura, the Starship Enterprise’s communications officer, she shouted to her mother, “There’s a Black lady on TV, and she ain’t no maid!” Then she appeared in the 1990 movie The Long Walk Home, in which she starred as a maid at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott.

Black women have few choices in Hollywood. Five decades after the start of the civil rights movement and three years after the election of the first African American president, Black women shouldn’t have to play maids anymore.

This leads to my other criticism of the film. 1963 was a tumultuous year in U.S. history, and history should be painted on a wide canvas, not set in the narrow confines a bourgeois home. How else can one make sense of one’s place in the world? Aibileen defiantly storms out of her employer’s home at the end of the film and walks off into the future with her head held high. But what awaits her?

Mississippi is still controlled by Gov. Ross Barnett and his band of white supremacist gangsters, but Freedom Summer is also on the horizon. I couldn’t help but think that it would be great if Viola Davis could have used all of her extraordinary talents to play Fannie Lou Hamer, heroine of the civil rights movement and founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Now that would be a great movie.

Joe Allen is the author of People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago, about the 1947 Hickman case, and Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost, a history of the Vietnam era from an unapologetically antiwar standpoint. He is also a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review.

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JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.

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