The Help

Or, “Ole Miss Strikes Again,” the first time being, of course, The Blind Side.  (A post in our Southern Ambiance series.)

I was living in Mississippi in 1963 when the story takes place, and despite some of the criticism you may have read, the movie accurately portrays the attitudes of part of the white elite of the time.  For one thing, unlike some of the uneducated redneck population, the white power structure did not, by and large, consider itself racist.  There’s a line in the movie where Hilly (wonderfully played by Bryce Dallas Howard, Hollywood elite herself, and raised in Connecticut) tells Skeeter to be careful because there are racists out there and she could get hurt. This is while Hilly is pushing a law to require bathroom facilities for the black help to be moved outdoors.

For more on this attitude, which seems so patronizing to us today, read William Alexander Percy’s 1941 memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, where he writes in all seriousness, for example, that every southern white man is “owned” by at least one black man (who essentially regards him as another parent and funding source.)  And Percy was considered scandalously liberal for his day.

The movie also hints that there were educated southerners — incidentally, Faulkner perhaps being the best known — who understood the evils of segregation but resented being lectured on the subject by “outsiders.”  Remember that the folks who counted in Mississippi in 1963 had parents born in the 19th century.  Memories of invasion, conquest, and occupation by the North were still fresh down there.  And now here comes another wave.  This certainly does not excuse the harm done to black and white by segregation (White man’s shame, black man’s burden — Rev. Dr. M. L. King,  Jr.), but it may help explain attitudes.

Finally,  most of the movie was shot in Greenwood, about a hundred miles north of Jackson, and the town where my wife was born.  Although it was somewhat jarring to see an aerial shot of Greenwood, population maybe 20,000 at the time, portrayed as the state capital that was 10 times its size, the scenes filmed in the surrounding lush Delta countryside are worth the price of admission.  Greenwood, incidentally, was also the girlhood home of Bobbie Gentry (“It was the 3rd of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day …”) and is today probably best known for the company that makes Viking ranges.

And really finally:  Although Skeeter went to Ole Miss, where she apparently picked up the backbone that distinguished her from her Junior League contemporaries, the author of the book, Kathryn Stockett betrayed her Jacksonian roots by graduating from Alabama (!) And to make matters worse, Octavia Spencer, whose portrayal of Minnie Jackson should land her an Oscar nomination (Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark would be the other) is an Auburn alum.

This brings up a point that was perhaps inevitable.  The roles of the maids are uniformly powerful and gripping.  Unfortunately most of the whites are 2D, the only exceptions that spring to mind being Emma Stone as Skeeter and Jessica Chastain as the Darryl Hannah-ish (as in Steel Magnolias) Celia Foote.  The others are either caricatures — although Ron Howard’s daughter gives it all it’s worth as Hilly — or wasted (Academy Award winners Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen).  A nod, though, to Chris Lowell for  bringing some dimension to the role of Skeeter’s love interest.

Anyway, see the movie, which gives a brief peek at a time in our history when America ultimately did the right thing.

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