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“The Help” – American black maids, tell us your stories

Published on January 14, 2012 by: in: Culture

Mississippi in the 60s under the rule of governor Ross Barnett was not an easy place to live for black people who were treated by then as citizens of the second category. It was just beginning of civil rights movement, segregation policy was still in power and racism was in its heyday. Black women had no choice but to work as maids and kitchen help in rich white people’s houses, standing humiliation and racist treatment. It is their story – black maids – which is told in Tate Taylor’s film “The Help”.

Segregation in the cinema

Finding some fresh perspective from which issue of segregation could be shown in the cinema is surely not an easy task. There were dozens and dozens of films made dealing with this theme and they include unquestionable classics such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) based on famous Harper Lee’s bestseller. There is a wide selection of biographies such as “Malcolm X” (1992) or “The Rosa Parks Story” (2002) and Spike Lee’s films dealing with racial stereotypes – sufficient to mention “Do The Right Thing” (1989) or “Bamboozled” (2000). Even if the theme is narrowed down to black women and evolution of their situation there is still a big number of films to mention, such as “The Color Purple” (1985) or “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (2005). Director Tate Taylor faced quite a big challenge – to make a film which will basically tackle the same issue but from a new perspective, with freshness and originality. A controversial book by Kathryn Stockett turned out to be exactly what he needed to succeed.

American black maids, tell your stories

The main character, Skeeter, is a young woman who has just come back from the university to her hometown Jackson, Mississippi. She wants to be a journalist or a writer (or both), she is kind and open-minded. Jackson turns out to be a place full of narrow-minded, racist people where black maids are treated as people of inferior category. For Skeeter this attitude is completely inexplicable and her growing anger leads to the idea of showing another perspective through interviewing and publishing the stories of black maids – women who are forced to neglect their own families to take care of white rich women’s children, who have to stand humiliation and racist remarks made by white people as if they did not exist. It is very difficult to convince any maid to talk to a white woman but when Skeeter finally succeeds she hears stories about separate toilets for black people – for the fear of white people catching diseases from them, about insulting remarks every day, about heartless white mothers who neglect their children, about stereotypes, racism and white people’s wrongly understood priorities. Some stories are funny – mocking stupidity of white people, others are sad, all of them give food for thought. What is important is that these stories are stories of average people, of everyday life. They are far from civil rights movement, they show normal, mundane reality and how life of black maids really looked like at that time.

No ideology, just life

It seems to be a very good choice made by Tate Taylor – not to go into political, ideological discourse, the film does not show big struggle against segregation. As already mentioned, it rather focuses on everyday reality and how maids were trying to cope with it. This is why this picture sticks out from all the other pictures, it condemns racism but not directly, rather by showing characters undergoing change in their way of thinking after seeing another side’s perspective. And it is not as if all people just suddenly stop being racist, but at least some of them start to think and this is where every change starts.
“The Help” is exceptionally well acted and basically all the characters are very well developed. Viewer can identify with some of them and hate others, but does not remain indifferent towards any of them. It does not happen often to have such a wide array of various characters in one film. Emma Stone as Skeeter is charming and natural and you take to her right away from the beginning of the film, the same as to Octavia Spencer as cheeky maid Minny. You might hate Hilly Holbrook but this is because Bryce Dallas Howard did great job creating villain, exaggerated but somehow fitting in the convention of the film. Cast and characters are probably the strongest point of this film.

Tears and laugh

Even though this film tackles a difficult issue and sometimes moves you to the verge of tears, it also can make you laugh. Thanks to this combination you do not have the feeling of watching politically correct film about how bad racism is, but a realistic, true story of everyday challenges and little pleasures. Don’t get me wrong. This film IS a Hollywood-style picture, it is not any alternative voice of American cinema industry. It can be seen as slightly naive or accused of using simplifications but it is naïve in this rather charming, non-disturbing way. One can also say that we have already seen all this. But have we really? It is a powerful picture which will make you think. Personally I don’t think you can ask anything else from a good film.

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Editor-in-chief of LiberteWorld

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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