'The Help': America pats itself on the back
IT’S HARDLY surprising that “The Help’’ did wonders at the box office last weekend. The movie about beleaguered maids and Southern belles in Jackson, Mississippi, is funny and moving, with some beautiful performances. And it’s the definition of a crowd-pleaser: A film that lets us pat ourselves on the back over how far we’ve come.
Yes, America, we can all look back on Mississippi, circa 1963, and agree on these bold principles: Racism is bad! Racists are bad! Separate outdoor bathrooms for black maids are bad! Now, let’s head on home!
Based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help’’ is the story of Skeeter, a young white debutante who, like her friends, was raised by a kindly black maid while her mother was busy with the Junior League. When Skeeter returns home from college, it occurs to her that these maids have, in fact, lived difficult lives. Also, she wants a job with a New York publisher who happens to be keen on the maids’ stories. So Skeeter interviews the maids, then puts their anonymous tales into a bestselling book that brings enlightenment to several other white people.
The story has an element of truth to it; Stockett grew up in Jackson in the ’70s and ’80s, and was raised by a loving black maid who wore a uniform and used an outdoor toilet in the blistering heat.
But in the book and the movie, the action takes place in 1963, in the heart of the civil rights era. The maids’ travails - painful, Jim Crow-era hardship and humiliation - are juxtaposed with the Medgar Evers slaying. John F. Kennedy dies. Bob Dylan plays in the background. It’s two-and-a-half hours of wallowing in battles that have already been fought and won: an all-American cop-out.
This isn’t a call for self-flagellation; we should feel proud of the progress our nation has made in a short period of time. A movie whose villains are pretty young racists would have been much less of a gimme 50 years ago. But if we’ve lost most of our tolerance for stark discrimination, we’ve moved onto different battles, over subtler ills: embedded prejudices, achievement gaps, structural inequalities. The modern dynamics of race and class are more nuanced, more challenging, less guaranteed to yield box office gold.
“The Help’’ flirts with some of those deeper ideas, such as the social dynamic when poor women raise rich children as their own, then become their employees. But the movie doesn’t delve very far. With a couple of exceptions, the white women here don’t seem conflicted so much as oblivious, cartoonishly callous, and mean. And boy, do they get their comeuppance: Hilly, the meanest and most racist of the debs, winds up with a stern talking-to and a really ugly cold sore on her lip - plus the bloodthirsty hoots of the movie theater crowds.
It’s no wonder that they cheer. Americans are always looking for quick fixes and reasons to hang the “Mission Accomplished’’ banner. And it’s easy to judge the present against the past: “Mad Men’’ started off with a similar trick, letting us sneer at the sexist ’60s though the lens of women’s lib.
We also yearn for validation, some proof that good intentions make a difference. Barack Obama won the presidency for many reasons, but one of them was symbolism: People felt good about the idea that a black man could win. During the 2008 primaries, my brother told me he was voting for Obama because Hillary Clinton would draw the same old partisan rancor. Obama would surely herald an era of calm and mature debate. The following year, I asked my brother how that was working out.
On the other hand, with the exception of some particularly race-related sideshows - the birther absurdity springs to mind - Obama’s current political predicament is actually a sign of how far we’ve come - not just since 1963, but since 2008. He’s not only the first black president now; he’s also just the president, capable of plenty of misjudgments and mistakes. If he wins or loses in 2012, it will be largely on his merits, his actions, his ability to translate ideas into a campaign. That’s not Hollywood-caliber drama, but it’s progress.