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Author: Bob Etier
How many ways are there to abuse a person? How many ways can someone be made to feel inferior? Apparently, in the 1950s and 1960s, Mississippi Junior League types were expert at oppressing not only their fellow citizens who happened to be Black, but also anyone else who didn’t meet their silver spoon standards.
Sadly, in the Deep South, there is still this us-them attitude among many Whites and African-Americans. There are pockets of racial hatred and oppression everywhere, but in places like Louisiana and Mississippi—and all those other places that don’t accept that the Civil War is over or that the South lost—social segregation flourishes.
Beautifully, sensitively acted, The Help recreates Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1963-4, where two worlds co-existed, the elite, rich, young, white families and their Black domestics—the maids who cleaned homes, raised other people’s children, and were insulted, bullied, and treated like property. The maids weren’t second-class citizens; their employers barely considered them people, treating them with an embarrassing degree of insensitivity.
In the early days of the civil rights movement, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home to Jackson after graduating from college, intent on becoming a serious writer. She returns to the privileged life in which she was raised, and to all her equally privileged friends, most of whom are married and have children. They gossip, play bridge, go to parties, and engage in similarly amusing activities. They all have “help.” As Skeeter begins to appreciate how superficial their lives are and observes how they treat the women who serve them, she decides to write a book entitled The Help, about the relationship of her friends to their maids, told from the maids’ point of view.
She secretly embarks on her project with the help of Aibilene one of her friends’ maids (Viola Davis), although no others are willing to collaborate for fear of losing their jobs. Influenced by civil rights activists and the assassination of Medgar Evers, both Skeeter and the maids are ready to shake up the status quo. When one of the maids is brutalized by the police, all of them decide to cooperate with Skeeter.
Strong performances distinguish The Help, particularly Stone, Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard as the insufferably smug, bigoted Hilly Holbrook who gets her come-uppance at the hands of a maid she fired, Octavia Spencer as maid Minny Jackson (who gets her revenge), Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, and (especially) Jessica Chastain as the white, but socially unacceptable, Celia Foote.
There are many unlikely humorous moments in The Help, making it a glossy revision of what life was like in that time and place. However, they give the audience a sense of what “should have been,” a semblance of fairness in an unfair world.
Is The Help an accurate depiction of a certain segment of 1960s Jackson? Knowing that there are still areas in America where “White folks” and “Black folks” are socially segregated despite legislated integration, one suspects that it is rather close. The Help will be available on DVD and Blu-ray December 6, 2011. It is an intelligent, thoughtful, and thought-provoking look at a chapter in our social history.