I mentioned in a previous post watching The Help, and the strong emotional response I had to the film.
First, let’s talk about the film itself, based on Kathryn Stockett‘s bestselling novel of the same name.
The Help is set in Mississippi in the early 1960s during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. A young society girl, known to one and all as Skeeter (Emma Stone), has aspirations to become a novelist. Fresh out of college, she returns to her hometown and decides she wants to tell the life stories of the black servants—“the help”—who have for generations raised the children of well-to-do southern families.
Only one maid, Abileen, Skeeter’s best friend’s housekeeper, is willing to speak with her in the beginning.
There is unhappiness on both sides with Skeeter’s writing project—Abileen’s friends in the black community think she should stay silent and not rock the boat, and Skeeter’s friends from the fine old southern families think one of their own is meddling with the status quo.
Nevertheless, Abileen and Skeeter continue their collaboration, and other women begin to come forward to share their own experiences. Their stories are eventually compiled into a book, also called The Help, and published under a pseudonym—with all the names and locales changed, of course.
Still, everyone knows “who’s who” and some of the stories paint a very unflattering portrait of their employers, particularly Hilly, a manipulative and venomous creature portrayed brilliantly by Bryce Dallas-Howard.
Along the way we also see a friendship develop between Celia Foote, the “white trash” wife of Hilly’s former boyfriend, and Celia’s maid, Minny. Both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis as Minny and Abileen give true, honest performances that linger with you well after the film has ended.
It’s the sort of film that makes you laugh and weep and think. I haven’t yet read the book, although I do have it on my Kindle; from what I can gather, the film adaptation from the source material is a pretty solid one. It’s well acted, well scripted and has excellent production values. Filmed in Greenwood, Miss., The Help looks and feels authentic.
For some, this film could be a valuable history lesson on the way things were in the segregated South of 50 years ago and the complicated relationship between black servants and their white employers; for others of us, it’s a reminder of life as we once knew it.
I was born in Alabama, right next door to Mississippi, in roughly the same time period in which this story is set.
I did not attend school with black children until the fifth grade when our schools were forced to integrate. I remember when black customers could not eat inside the air-conditioned dining room of the Dairy Queen. How they were not even allowed to use the same pick-up window. Public water fountains were “whites only.” Black patients sat in separate waiting rooms at the doctor’s office.
I knew families whose meals were cooked, houses cleaned and children cared for by black servants, who were not allowed to eat at the same table as their white employers.
Many of those servants were genuinely loved, and yet, expected to stay at arm’s length from white society. Expected to know their place. It’s a contradiction, but it was (and for some, still is) a reality.
Celestine Marsh was “the help” at our home on a part-time basis, usually once, sometimes twice in a week. She was barely five feet tall with a well-upholstered body and a couple of gold teeth that flashed when she smiled.
I will always remember the delicious rice pudding she made from leftover rice and how good it tasted as an afterschool snack. I remember the time she took a hoe and killed the rattlesnake that was threatening my two older sisters.
I remember her prayers. You see, she was also an ordained minister, the pastor of the little concrete block church they built on land deeded to her family by my daddy. When Celestine got the Holy Spirit stirring, she vibrated all over as if she was being shocked with an electric current.
“Yes, Lord, Yes. Praise God, praise Jesus,” she’d exclaim in that slightly throaty voice, raising her plump hands in the air and closing her eyes.
I don’t mind telling you that as a little girl, I was a bit scared of Celestine in Jesus Mode. As I grew older, I came to appreciate Celestine’s fervent prayers for me and my family. When Celestine was talking to the Lord on your behalf, you felt well and truly prayed for, as if she had a direct line to God.
When my older sister had to go into the hospital for some surgery, it was Celestine who weaned me. My mother informed me that when she came back home, I initially wanted nothing to do with Mama, having bonded with Celestine.
She was actually one of my mother’s first friends when Mama came from the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee to Alabama in 1946 to marry my daddy. My mother didn’t know any black people growing up. That’s because there were no black people in that part of Tennessee back in those days.
And on the big farm my grandfather had established, there were many farm hands working in his cotton gin and lumber mill and in the fields. Mama experienced culture shock. When my grandfather came down on the train to visit Mama in the early days of her marriage, he expressed trepidation over all those unfamiliar dark faces surrounding his favorite daughter.
Mama told him, “But Daddy. They’re just people, too. You treat them right and they will treat you right.” Unlike Daddy, Mama didn’t grow up using the “n” word and she taught us not to use it either.
Still, as with so many other white families, Celestine was referred to by her first name, with no courtesy “Miz” in front of it. You just didn’t use formalities with the help. It wasn’t done. As the Bruce Hornsby song says, “That’s just the way it is . . .”
(end of part one)
Comic-Con is coming July 11-15 in San Diego!