Think you “get it” after seeing The Help? Read on.
By Stephanie Morris-Graves
There’s been no shortage of conversation over the last few weeks about the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-seller, one of the year’s blockbusters. As entertaining as it is–blacks and whites alike have raved about the film to me—The Help is a re-warmed version of countless fictitious looks at the Jim Crow-era South, where racism is presented like a Saturday-morning cartoon full of laughs and underdogs and superheroes and good prevailing over evil.
Everyone walks away feeling great. White people feel good because they know for sure they’re nothing like Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the ruthless, mean-spirited Junior Leaguer who wasn’t afraid to let it be known that her life purpose was to make sure disgusting “negres” (sic) didn’t use the indoor toilets at the homes where they worked as domestics.
Black people feel good because the soft-spoken Aibileen (Viola Davis) and the no-nonsense, sass-mouthed Minny (Octavia Spencer), who’d for years been wronged by their white employers, get revenge when Minny delivers her poop-filled pie to unsuspecting Hilly, who thoroughly savors every disgusting morsel. Meanwhile, the heroine of the movie, compassionate Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a friend of Hilly’s and a local journalist, sees an opportunity to help the help by writing a story from their perspective for a New York magazine.
It works every time—the tried-and-true formula for a feel-good film about America’s ugly and ongoing struggle with racism:
Extreme, brazen racist person (Hilly) commits racist acts against a helpless, hopeless black person, who for some reason possesses tons of god-like inner strength (Aibileen and Minny). The helpless black person always has one nice and compassionate white friend (Skeeter), who is usually scared or nervous or troubled. The helpless black person helps the compassionate white person become a stronger human being by imparting supernatural wisdom, thus enabling him or her to gain a never-before-experienced level of courage and strength.
The black person typically then fades into the background, while the newly empowered white person spearheads a valiant effort of retaliation against the horrible white racist person, thus saving everyone from the evil that is racism.
White people leave feeling justified because many seem to enjoy an occasional whipping—as long as it’s self-inflicted—over America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow. Plus, they can applaud themselves because they’re certainly not that terrible racist Hilly person and are likely aligning themselves with the compassionate white person. Black people leave feeling satisfied, because not only were we validated by a good white person like Skeeter—we often seek this kind of approval—but we were able to get nasty revenge on the bad one.
What we miss is that although everybody leaves feeling good, they leave unchanged, because all of these factors cancel each other out and we’re right back where we started—divided, distrustful, and separated by choice.
Which brings me back to Minny’s poop pie.
We’ve seen this type of vengeance before in movies: pee in lemonade, spit in water, etc., but The Help takes it to a new, savage level. The egregious failure of this movie is the supposed punch line of Minny baking her bowel movement into a pie. Sure, it’s passed off as rough justice, funny and cruel at the same time, and everyone clapped as the Mammy-like Minny stood wide-eyed watching Hilly eat her poop. But I have a sinking feeling that, unbeknownst to most of the people who celebrated this act, it served to reinforce the Colonial-era view of black people as unbridled savages who without hesitation can indulge in beast-like behavior such as baking one’s own feces into a pie and serving it.
Racism is only dealt with when we deeply examine our hearts. We might leave The Help feeling good because our personal evil doesn’t descend to the level of Hilly’s. But what goes on in the silence of our minds when we pass a young black girl on the street, wearing revealing clothing and with three young kids in tow? What about when we ask the black man sitting in first class if he’s a rapper or athlete?
How does that chip on our shoulder play out on our jobs? Is it OK to make white people squirm in fear of being cursed out for one misspoken word?
I submit that most of us are a lot like Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s mother, who’s ruled by good and evil, and the one that wins at a given moment is the one that proves most advantageous for ourselves. Hilly, in fact, isn’t the most pathetic character in the movie; she’s a caricature, a joke, and as such is easily dismissed. But Charlotte, who was likely kind to and at some level loved her “help,” quickly turns on her domestic Constantine to save face with her friends when she sees that they’re annoyed with Constantine’s slow service at lunch and demand that Charlotte do something about it.
Blacks and whites shouldn’t evaluate themselves against silly extremes like Hilly and Minny but against the Standard, Jesus Christ. It can start with a question like this: Do I have the courage to make selfless, godly decisions in spite of prejudice, in spite of injustice, and in spite of personal gain? •
Stephanie Morris-Graves is a publicist and freelance writer. She lives in the Dallas area with her husband and their two children.