The Help

This was my first attempt at a movie reviews. Contributions are welcome.

The movie The Help struck me as duplicitous in that it was layered with depth and meaning, and yet seemed entertaining and inconsequential. You could easily be swayed to hold a light-noted perspective of the story instead of one of concern and pragmatism. I was at first tempted to take it as a usual storyline with brief scenes that made me wince and an ending that has a touch of melancholy. The producer did a good job softening painful historical realities and appalling truths with humor, drama and suspense.

After reading An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help by the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), however, I found that I had been triumphantly blindfolded from the severity of the issues hinted on in the movie. The refrainment from the full scale portrayal of these issues had at first handicapped me from the ability to empathize with the African American people in the 1960s to a large extent. Erroneously, social injustices seem more palatable the further they are from the present, and so to me – albeit being within the youth bracket in Kenya – the 1960s seem too close to the day to allow for such atrocities of racism as both the movie and the ABWH statement have managed to illustrate.

The guise of humor and drama on portent issues is paramount in the character of Minnie. Behind the comedy of her mischief, and her seemingly over-the-top tantrums, is the merited overwhelming frustration brought about by the humiliating existence of a discriminative law. The law lobbied by Hilly Holbrook, a white-supremacist housewife, prohibited African American help from using in-house toilet facilities for a propagated phobia of fictitious diseases uniquely borne by the African Americans – an obvious cover-up for prejudice that greatly dehumanizes and inconveniences the helps. This is despite the fact that African American helps had raised the same housewives from childhood – building their self-worth, cleaning after and even toilet-training them – as demonstrated in the lives of Skeeter and Mae. Ironically, the White housewives, as children, loved their African American nannies dearly – as Mae did Abileene – for compensating for their mothers who were more concerned about their social image than their children’s psychological wellbeing and nurturing. Upon reaching adulthood, however, most of the white children seemed to have absorbed their parents’ vices. To me this illustration profoundly exemplifies the fabric of racism – selfish impositions strewn from logics that are founded on fickle excuses to better the lives of a group of people at the high price of another’s, so much so that one cannot hide the absurdity. Yet the movie succeeds in wrapping the inhumane implications of these realities in comic relief and satire such as Minnie’s revenge on her former boss Hilly and in-house debacles of the white housewives’ society.

Another illustration of racial dominance and segregation in The Help that had at first escaped me is that of most if not all African American female characters working in White homes – a clear indication that there was no economic power among the African American community. The helps are shown to have lived together in the same neighborhoods, wore the same uniforms and rode on the same buses, many earning below the minimum wage. Despite their hard labor, they were made subject to the demands of femininity idolized in the 1960s by white housewives, such as wearing high heels all day, which can only make the job of a manual laborer more difficult.

There was no dignity regarded to the African Americans. Abileene being kicked out of a bus that was also being used by whites during a public uprising, after the killing of an African American civil rights activist, and later scraping her knee by falling on her face for running home for safety made me fight back tears. I could not help but painfully imagine my mother or any lady of a mature age being disrespected and treated in any manner less than honorably just for being black. Also, the presence of a singular African American male or two in the labor force – and Minnie’s drunk and abusive husband – gorily paints the idea that their female counterparts heavily bore the burden of being their families’ financial providers, as their men were either absent or irresponsible. The helps thus had no choice but to pass the legacy of their careers on to their daughters from generation to generation. They even pulled them out of school to work as Minnie did to her daughter. This depiction adds to the present day stereotype of the African American community being largely uneducated, poor, violent, with broken families for the absence of father figures and incapable of being wealthy by legal means.

Reading the ABWH’s Statement to the Fans of The Help, some anger and even resentment for the movie emanates at the insight they gave on left out details of history in place of my initial somberness and measurable pity for the main character Abilene. Regardless, I am at a conundrum as to how much expectation we should have on a movie. The Help is approximately two hours long and yet serves knowledge weighty enough to propel healthy discussions. We are able to derive a lot about the past from it, even if not in its entirety. That coupled with the freedom of expression of any legal content through art – and the fact that The Help does not come across to me as deliberately intending to do harm – makes me more lenient and forgiving than the Association of Black Women Historians strike me to be. In my opinion, if the aim was mainly to entertain through comedy and drama within a setting of the said period in time, then The Help is quite permissible and makes for good viewership. Also, we cannot reasonably find the length of the film sufficient in capturing complete realities of a people or day to day lives of individuals. Whereas I can only feel for the African American community and try to comprehend their journey in the struggle against race and discrimination, I am inclined to believe that the ABWH via their statement to the fans of The Help, hold too much expectation on the movie, especially considering the need for the flow of a story as it seeks to compile and sculpt relevant events and what the artist uniquely seeks to portray. Furthermore, the omission of the facts pointed out by the ABWH may make the history of the African American community as told in The Help incomprehensive, but not in the least bit false.

All in all The Help is a beautiful movie starred by award winning performances that would leave one dazed with inspiration, concern and curiosity as to what the future held for the main characters and their associations.

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