Bernard: “The Help”

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(HOST) Commentator Emily Bernard recently went to the movies – and the experience left her with decidedly mixed feelings.

(BERNARD) I am a sucker for all things interracial, but the “The Help” left me more hungry than satisfied. I found the characters’ speech flat and unimaginative; and I left the theater craving the poetic language of black southern writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Ernest Gaines – and of my own grandmother, who lives in a small town near Jackson, Mississippi, where the movie is set, and who is, in her words, “…92 and knocking the bark off 93.”

“The Help” left me hungry, too, for real history. The movie version of “The Help” sanitizes, if you will, the world outside of the homes in which black and white female characters entertain and work. In the book, Kathryn Stockett pays more attention to the murders of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, the one-person integration initiative of James Meredith, the historic “March on Washington,” and the famous Woolworth sit-ins, which took place all over the country but were most brutal in Mississippi. In her memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody recounts the violence of the sit-ins, the terror felt by black and white activists, as they challenged white supremacy and racial hatred by the simple act of sitting down at a lunch counter and insisting on being served.

But “The Help” is not necessarily about history, and those who enter the theatre expecting to find a version of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer-Prize winning work on the Civil Rights Movement are probably expecting too much from DreamWorks.

There is a lot of criticism of the movie for its simplistic representation of white racism in the Jim Crow South, which was much more harrowing than the everyday indignities endured by the black characters in the movie. But there is something very accurate in “The Help” in its depiction of the power of white women in the segregated South, who did not make the laws but, as mistresses of their domains, had the power to maintain the racial divide on the most mundane and perhaps the most profound levels. The movie reveals how interracial hatred and intimacy can somehow co-exist and breed the perplexing and sometimes laughable ironies of racism; for example, if white women in the Jim Crow South thought that black women were so dirty, then why did they saddle them with the responsibility of raising their children?

The movie is important in what it says about the politics of our intimate spaces and whom we call friends and invite into our homes. “The Help” does suggest that racial inequalities can be overturned by sharp words and great meals; but most of all the movie reveals that the perpetuation of racism can be part of the fabric of casual speech and assumptions and the kind of conversations we tolerate at the dinner table.

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