I was born and raised in the South. In Virginia, to be exact. And while it’s not so far south as Mississippi (the setting of The Help), it’s Southern enough to make the issues raised by the film familiar. And yet, in spite of its unsettling familiarity, as a white woman, I have to admit that I learned very little about the Civil Rights movement in school. A fact that unsettles me even more.
The issues that made that movement necessary are still relevant, as evidenced by the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is perhaps for those reasons that I relate so closely with this film; the injustice of inequality is not something stuck in a distant past. It is our daily life. It shouldn’t be, but it is. So I felt closely connected with the women in the film who were trapped in the multi-layered system of inequality that pervaded life in the 1960’s.
But what I really love about this story is how the women stand together and use every ounce of courage they possess to work outside of the law to right the wrongs of their society.
When aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, Easy A, The Amazing Spiderman) replaces a housekeeping columnist for her local newspaper, she requests advice from the only ones around her that know about housekeeping: the help. The interviews she conducts quickly morph into the revolutionary idea of writing a compilation of stories from the point of view of these women, their experiences, and treatment from their white employers.
I was briefly tempted to roll my eyes here. Really? Another white-savior film? But my eyes stopped mid-roll as I recalled their situation. Who else was going to bridge the gap? Who else was going to speak on behalf of the men and women who were trapped, by law and circumstance, in silence? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was making cultural waves, but what about the people in the towns, waiting with bated breath to hear the fulfillment of their mutual dream? And that’s when the film changed for me. It’s about one girl using her gift for others, at great risk for all of the women involved, even if the risk and danger are most prescient for the women of color.
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, Suicide Squad, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) is the first bold woman who agrees to tell her story. As the film’s narrator, she guides the audience through her personal experiences as well as her self-realization as a writer and a woman with a story worth telling. She has dedicated her life to loving the children she’s placed in charge of, and she tirelessly repeats to them what is most important: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
The next fearless woman is Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer, The Divergent Series, Snowpiercer). She’s a character with a steely exterior and a heart of gold, prepared to help others and give second chances, when necessary.
Together, these women (eventually joined by a bevy of others) tell the stories that no one has dared to before. Their transparency about their harsh employers and their moving testimonies create a tapestry of Jackson life that has never before seen the light of day, and suddenly becomes a life-changing, page-turning sensation.
The Help stirred a lot of conversation upon its release about its depiction of historical racial tension and inequality in the United States. It’s always problematic when discrimination stories are told through a white lens. I look forward to a time when our screens are filled with stories told by women of color. The screens are changing. Very. Very. Slowly.
In the meantime, Clark’s words are relevant to anyone and everyone. Remember: You is kind. You is smart. You is important.