|Emma Stone playing "Skeeter" in The Help|
Based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling 2009 novel, The Help is a poignant film based on the author's experience of the deep-rooted racism experienced by black maids caring for white children in America's south. Told from the points of view of Skeeter and two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, in the book, the film posits Skeeter, played by Emma Stone, as the 23-year-old protagonist.
Seven years after Rosa Parks had refused to vacate her bus seat for a white passenger and two years before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act ushering in sweeping legislative change and prohibiting discrimination based on race, colour, religion and national origin, we find Skeeter returned home to Jackson, Mississipi, from college in 1962, having graduated fourth in her class.
A tall, plain, frizzy-haired, fair skinned girl, Skeeter is confronted not only with the proposition of becoming an outcast because of her educated views on civil rights, but the mysterious disappearance of the black maid, Constantine, who raised her on her parents' cotton farm, as well as the oppressive wishes of a mother whose health is ailing.
Skeeter has a dream; to write.
"While my friends were out drinking rum and Cokes at Phi Delta Theta parties and pinning on mum's corsages, I sat in the study parlor and wrote for hours – mostly term papers but also short stories, bad poetry, episodes of Dr. Kildare, Pall Mall jingles, letters of complaint, ransom notes, love letters to boys I'd seen in class but hadn't had the nerve to speak to, all of which I never mailed. Sure, I dreamed of having football dates, but my real dream was that one day I would write something that people would actually read."
The South, as history tells us, lagged behind other American states in progressive civil rights action. When the film adaptation of Stockett's book begins, we find Skeeter confronted by her former high school buddies, Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt, with Hilly introducing Skeeter – editor of the Jackson League newsletter – to her "Home Help Sanitation Initiative", a "disease preventative measure" through which all black maids (aka "the help") would be allocated outdoor toilets to use in lieu of indoor loos.
As president of the League, Hilly holds a lot of sway, but Skeeter won't have a bar of her initiative. She was raised by her maid and is thankful for the tolerance it bred in her, much more the love. After a boy had called Skeeter ugly, her maid Constantine had assured her, "Ugly live up on the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person... You have to ask yourself, Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?". While her mother was concerned with straightening out her hair, Constantine had planted the invaluable seed of self-belief within her young charge.
Indignant, Skeeter decides to confront the maid, Aibileen, who works for Elizabeth with a proposition: to tell her story. Reluctant for fear of being found out and thereby out on her ear or, worse, being charged with an "integration violation" or assaulted by angry white folk for her transgression, Aibileen eventually concedes, and so begins Skeeter's covert writing project: transcribing the stories of Aibileen and then Minny and sending them off to her editor, Elaine Stein, in New York.
Skeeter's first question to Aibileen: "What does it feel like to raise a white child when your own child's at home being... looked after by someone else?"
Aibileen believes that not all white women are fit to be mothers, especially her employer, Elizabeth, a spindly young woman with a fat baby girl named Mae who's more concerned with covering up her modest home furnishings with materials she would sew up herself than giving her emotionally deprived child any attention. The weak-willed Elizabeth, whose aspirations appear entirely materialistic, takes Hilly's orders with barely a hesitation, even in defiance of her husband who can't see the sense in spending money on special sanitation quarters for the maid.
Hilly is a detestable snob, racist and insecure woman set on controlling everyone else and who treats her own mother with contempt while looking down her nose at "white trash girls" like Celia Foote, the Marilynesque woman who marries Hilly's ex-boyfriend and employs Minny. Hilly's comeuppance is almost assured from the outset, as we reap from which we sew, but her inhumane conduct still breathes fear into the lives of others, though she does reserve affection for her own children.
"Our places of comfort are expectedly different, my friends and I," says Skeeter. "Elizabeth's is hunched over a sewing machine trying to make her life look seamless, store-bought. Mine is at my typewriter writing pithy things I'll never have the guts to say out loud. And Hilly's is behind a podium telling sixty-five women that three cans apiece isn't enough to feed all those PSCAs – The Poor Starving Children of Africa, that is."
In transcribing the black maids' stories, the naive Skeeter finds Aibileen to be an accomplished writer and reader herself, though she's banned from going to the State Street Library because of her colour. These daily indignities come to life in her talks with Aibileen and make the segregation situation all the more clear to Skeeter, who has good intentions and high ideals, and is familiar with all the state laws separating white and black, but has not experienced the gritty reality herself, much less in the four years she is away at college absorbed in books in the library.
"I think about how easy I thought it would be, three months ago, to get a dozen maids to talk to me. Like they'd just been waiting, all this time, to spill their stories to a white woman. How stupid I'd been."
On one occasion, though, in the book, she is stopped by a policeman who shines a light through her car window and onto her red satchel, which contains all her work, as she crosses over the "coloured bridge" to see Aibileen and Minny. "I shook so bad I could hardly read the questions I'd written for Minny," she says. But that scrape, the "satchel scare", pales in comparison to Aibileen being told to vacate a bus in the middle of the night because up ahead "some nigger got shot" by the KKK, nor the grief Aibileen feels knowing her own son – a promising, intelligent young man – was left for dead outside a hospital by the white men he worked for. The tensions escalate on the street as does the home-centred storyline.
"For days and days, Jackson, Mississipi's like a pot a boiling water," says Aibileen. "On Miss Leefolt's tee-vee, flocks a colored people march up High Street the day after Mister Evers' funeral. Three hundred arrested. Colored paper say thousands a people came to the service, but you could count the whites on one hand. The police know who did it, but they ain't telling nobody his name... For the second time in two months, Jackson, Mississipi's in the Life magazine. This time, though, we make the cover."
Minny is a spitfire whose relationship with her employer, Miss Celia, is altogether civilised, with Celia pressing Minny for cooking tips and advice on how to ingratiate herself to the women of the League. "There are so many things Miss Celia is just plain ignorant about," laments Minny. But their relationship reaches a new level when Minny becomes privy to Miss Celia's private pain and her ostracisation by Hilly ("You can't judge yourself by the way that woman see you," she says). It's also Minny, the leader, who galvanises her fellow maids into action, even as her husband hits her at home.
The early 60s was the time of the Pill and Valium, when smoking became a health hazard, of man walking on the moon, of war in Vitenam and President Kennedy's assassination, and Skeeter keeps abreast of the news via the television and magazines, albeit turned off or face down when her mother enters the room (they'll be none of that civil rights talk there).
While those in their teens and 20s will perhaps connect with Skeeter's relationship angst, the way she throws herself in her work to hide from the discomfort of heartbreak, young journalists will be familiar with some of Skeeter's professional dilemmas, too, as she swallows her pride to answer the domestic matters in her columns and scrambles to put together her interviews in her spare time while keeping abreast of the news.
"Eugenia," says her book editor in New York, "Have you seen the cover of Life magazine this week?". She hasn't read it for a month, but is reluctant to admit it. "Martin Luther King, dear. He just announced a march on D.C. and invited every Negro in America to join him. Every white person, for that matter. This many Negro and white people haven't worked together since Gone With the Wind."
Christians will be challenged by the vast chasm between what one believes and what one practises, particularly when Hilly is approached by her maid for a loan to send her sons to college and told that a true Christian doesn't give charity to those who are well and able, as it's kinder to let them work things out themselves. Then there's the conflict between the law and God's wishes, which Martin Luther King Jnr himself confronted head on in his letter from Birmingham gaol:
"The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."
The Help is a story about three women with courage and friendships forged against a setting of struggle. This moving, important film, and the book before it, presents us all with a challenge: just what are we willing to sacrifice in order to put things right starting in our own small, seemingly insignificant lives? As Skeeter later says, after a confidence is shared with a friend:
"There is so much you don't know about a person. I wonder if I could've made her days a little bit easier, if I'd tried. If I'd treated her a little nicer. Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought."
The affirmative words of Aibileen repeated over and over again to fat, white, neglected little Mae Mobley in her care are bound to resonate with any woman who has felt less than worthy: "Baby Girl, I need you to remember everything I told you... You is kind, you is smart, you is important."
The Help opens nationally on September 1st and I recommend you take some tissues!
Girl With a Satchel