By MARK TURNER
It seems these days that young people tend to ignore history or relate to it only in the amount of time they’ve had on Earth. Anything beyond that is unimportant to them. At the same time they tend to focus more on social and media material than on things as simple as books, limiting themselves to the intake of knowledge. With the release of THE HELP, one can only hope that it inspires them to look deeper, to find out the real story of what happened with the civil rights questions of the ‘60s.
Set in the early ‘60s in Jackson, Mississippi, the story revolves around the black maids of this racially segregated town. These are the days when separate entrances and water fountains were considered normal. And while they are called on to use separate areas, the maids are considered good enough to basically raise white children and take care of white houses.
The main character in question is Aibileen (Viola Davis), a maid who works for a respectable family, taking care of their child, Mae Mobley, and teaching and taking care of her as well as cooking and cleaning the house. The friction in her world has been buried beneath years of racial prejudice but comes to a head when the leader of the Junior League, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) tells the girls in the club everyone should have a separate bathroom for their hired help because they carry germs. She’s so convinced she’s written an initiative and sent it to the governor in hopes that it can be turned into a law.
Aibileen knows she can not react but it doesn’t set well with her, either. Neither does it set well with Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone). Just back from college and hoping to find a job as a writer, Skeeter has just taken a job as a writer taking on letters concerning cleaning which she knows nothing about.
Seeking advice and help, she turns to Aibileen who knows all sorts of cleaning secrets. When Hilly makes her bathroom initiative know, Skeeter doesn’t think much of it and pushes back mentioning it in the Junior League’s newsletter indefinitely.
As Skeeter and Aibileen get to know one another, Skeeter asks her if she’d be interested in talking to her about what its like to be a maid in Mississippi, what it’s like to raise white people’s children only to see them grow and become more like their parents. While she turns her down at first, eventually Aibileen realizes that she needs to find the courage it takes to let the truth be known. Once she does, the two begin putting together the book that will become known as THE HELP.
Skeeter does have an ulterior motive but she’s up front with Aibileen from the start. Skeeter wants to be a serious writer and a publisher in New York would be interested in the stories she’s seeking. As they progress she finds that the publisher wants more than just one or two maid’s tales, they need more. Aibileen first recruits her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), a brash and at times abrasive maid who’s having problems finding new employment as Hilly has recently fired her. Eventually due to other circumstances more maids join in.
But this is just the story of the maids that is the main focus. What also comes into play here is the story of Hilly and her controlling nature as well as her racist attitudes. Hilly rules the Junior League with an iron fist and the girls that belong follow her lead to the letter. This is the social atmosphere of Jackson at this time, a world where social stature is the most important thing. All women desire to be added to their midst and fear being shunned by the League and Hilly. But Hilly’s actions eventually have consequences.
The story reveals itself as the world is changing. Medgar Evers is shot at one point and JFK’s funeral is mentioned. Not only do these items bring the historical aspect of the time into play but they set the tone for what the world was like during this period. This is the most important thing that young people can gain from watching this. My guess is none of them would believe that anyone could be so backwards as is seen here but it did happen.
The revelations of the stories the maids have to tell and how they are treated by their white employers brings the tale of racism to a personal level, especially those of Aibileen and Minny. And Skeeter, who was raised in this atmosphere, has her eyes opened as well as each story is told to her. It’s as if she’s seeing the world around her for the first time.
THE HELP is not a movie that will give details and specific incidents to young people who see it concerning the civil rights movement. But as I stated earlier, it will be a nice jumping on point for them to begin looking into it. Many would be stunned to learn that there are still areas of the country that continue on this way.
The best part of this movie is that it’s not a slap in the face. It’s not an attack that paints one group as superior to the other or sets one race against another. Instead it uses Hilly to represent that vocal minority that leads others by the nose and forces them to do these things they know they shouldn’t, sitting back and accepting things as they are in the hopes of being part of the in crowd.
It uses Skeeter to represent the people who have stood by silent but are waking up to the realities around them. And it uses Aibileen and Minny to represent those who have been oppressed and have hope for a different future. This is a movie that needs to be seen by youngsters who don’t know what it was like. Perhaps in so doing they can realize that change was needed and needs to carry on.
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