Why the Racial Divide of ‘The Help’ Hit Home to Me

It was Florida in the late ’50s, and on my school bus, the black students had to sit in the back — I didn’t understand why and would sit with them

 

In the late '50s I was an eighth grader attending school in Bradenton, Florida. On our school bus, the black students had to sit in the back. I didn't understand why and would sit with them. Some of them were friends.

In Bradenton the "colored folks" lived in a certain section of the town and had their own churches and celebrations that my first boy friend would take me to on occasion. I never told my parents because they would not have allowed me to go.

Also read Leah Rozen's review: Faithful to the Bestseller, 'The Help' Is a Message Movie With Sass — and Class

Whites and blacks did not mix.

This racial bigotry is the core of "The Help" — a touching film about black hired help telling their stories of being abused by white racists. Women denigrating women, with housework the link that forms a kind of domestic chain gang made up of tenderhearted souls who never volunteered to be victims. 

It has fine ensemble acting headed by Emma Stone (Skeeter), who has just graduated from college and returns home to pursue a career as a writer. Her first job is writing a cleaning advice column for her local newspaper. Her editor-in-chief tells her to hurry up with her assignment by saying 'chop chop' an expression of the time and by clicking his heels as he leaves the room.

The women are all excellent actresses. Skeeter wants to write a book about the "colored'" housekeepers. Viola Davis (Aibileen Clark) is the first woman to speak about her abuse. Octavia Spencer (Minnie Jackson) is the first to stand up to her diabolical employer portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly Holbrook), who is the most radical racist and who almost steals the film with her bitchy portrayal of a cruel employer.

Jessica Chastain (Celia Foote) portrays the town's sexpot with great humor. Allison Janney (Skeeter's mother) is a reminder that courage sometimes misses a generation and thanks her daughter "for bringing courage back to our generation." Sissy Spacek (Missus Walters) is Hilly's mother and drives her scenes with wit and energy.

Then there is a touching cameo by Cicely Tyson whose beauty shines through despite attempts to age her.
Tate Taylor's direction of this Oscar-worthy cast is flawless. He also wrote the screenplay for this civil war-meets-the-kitchen-saga, while Kathryn Stockett wrote the award winning novel, "The Help," on which this film is based.

My one qualm with the film is its look. Everything looks as though it is out of the town of Stepford, Connecticut, and the women look like "Stepford Wives." Having portrayed one of them myself, I felt as though I was revisiting the set. For a film with this gravitas I longed for a less polished look to the cars, the women, the homes — more like the films of Mike Leigh.

This naturalness would have been more appropriate for a theme of racial abuse. It seemed the concept for "The Help" could have been to get the look of a cover of Life magazine which was reminiscent of the era, but this puts the film in the realm of a feature length segment of "Mad Men."

The stories of the women are so poignant that I longed for more harsh reality not only for the sets but for the appearance of the people. The school buses look as though they just came off a Detroit assembly line. The school buses I remember were battered.

One of the housekeepers says about her employer, "She's got so much hairspray on she's gonna blow up if she lights a cigarette." The era may have been about hair spray, but the civil rights movement wasn't.

The housekeepers have a network and eventually unite to tell their stories to Skeeter, who wants to be a novelist. These women realize they are risking their lives if they talk and if they are caught telling of their abuse. They hesitate for a good portion of the film like figures out of a painting by German Expressionist Edward Munch huddled in fear until a horrific event causes them to have the courage to tell their stories to Skeeter.

This movie has its fair share of humor, such as when one of the housekeepers recalls a conversation with a child she raised, "One time he asked why I was black. I told him 'cause I drank too much coffee."

Still when you see the conclusion, you may leave teary eyed. I know I did.