Monday, August 29, 2011

300 Words on... The Help

The Help is this summer's "feel good" movie.  It's the story of Skeeter Phelan, who managed to graduate from Old Miss in the early 60's with passion for writing but without a husband. Landing a job writing a domestic advice column for the local paper, she asks help from "the help", the African-American maids who handle domestic work for upper class Jackson families.

As she talks with the maids of her friends, who have already married and had kids, and prodded by the unexplained departure of the maid who had raised her, Skeeter decides to tell these women's stories in a book she calls, "The Help".  At first, only two women take up Skeeter's offer - publishing the stories of black women was not only dangerous but actually illegal at the time - but as they push on others come forward and the book is triumphantly published.

The plot never goes anywhere unexpected, and as with most ensemble films, the characters come close to being flat stereotypes.  Skeeter is a standard "plucky" girl, while the the two lead maids, Aibeleen and Minnie, are more rounded and nuanced.

I was left wondering, however, who this film was supposed to make "feel good".  The happy ending is sadly unrealistic - in the real Jackson, the black church would have been firebombed, the maids beaten or killed, and Skeeter's family ruined.  Moreover, as this perceptive essay points out, Skeeter's friends weren't only racist, they were bad, twisted people.  By ignoring the fact that Jim Crow was carried out mostly by "nice" people, the film allows white people like me to believe that since we're good parents, don't shun people, don't demand separate bathrooms, we would have done better.  Or at least have done what Skeeter did. 

I'm not so sure about that.