‘The Help’ exposes hidden wounds of Jim Crow racism

The movie The Help has been well reviewed and critiqued at this point, with some finding it wanting. And there are reasons to find the movie deficient, the primary one being that the story is told from a White woman’s perspective.

But “therein lies the rub,” as the English bard had one of his characters say. The Help is a movie. Yes, it was adapted from a book (with problems of its own), but at bottom it is a movie, made in Hollywood no less. And Hollywood movies are made primarily for entertainment. If anyone actually depends on getting their history lessons from Hollywood, they are going to fall desperately short.

We have to be absolutely clear: Many Whites — liberal, well-meaning and otherwise — have a vested interest in telling themselves that the history of the treatment of Blacks in this country “wasn’t that bad,” when in actuality the truth is that more often it was worse than we can imagine.

However, Hollywood, in movies like this, sometimes affords us teachable moments and glimpses of truth. And this is true in The Help.

Our society is pitifully ahistorical, so the very idea of putting on the screen an era that many White folks have forgotten and Blacks are embarrassed by is a good thing in and of itself. Too often in discussions about race in this country, White folks foolishly refer back to slavery as if Jim Crow segregation, one of the vilest forms of caste separation in history, did not exist.

The Jim Crow era was violent, degrading, dignity-robbing and downright dehumanizing. It was, in actuality, modern North America’s first experience with terrorism.

To its credit, this movie puts a small slice of that era of racist terror front and center. It could be criticized for not giving us a larger glimpse of the terror, though the scene in which Aibileen is put off the bus in the middle of town because Medgar Evers has been shot gives us a glimpse. Aibileen hurries home in absolute fright.

While the movie spared us some of the worst of that which was Jim Crow segregation, one could still feel the fear and apprehension in many scenes. It gave us an even better glimpse of the craziness that allows one to hate the same people who cook your food, iron your clothes and tend to your children.

It also gave a peek into the mindset of the maids who, despite having the ear of the wealthy White folks’ children, didn’t seem to take advantage of this position to teach the children tolerance. And imagine not being able to sit on the same toilet that you scrub daily, but having to go outdoors when there were indoor facilities. It made me wonder what kind of mental gymnastics one has to perform to hate and disdain the same people who helped raise you.

I don’t know what prompted the White woman (Kathryn Stockett) who wrote down the stories of Black maids. In some respects it was an act of courage. And that shouldn’t be overlooked, because yet again a member of the oppressing class is telling the story of the oppressed.

But we got to see a glimpse of the soul-destroying work that being a maid in Mississippi in the early 1960s may have been. We must not fail to give credit to the women who clearly had to have intestinal fortitude to tell the truth about their so-called betters.

And it reminded us that if it weren’t for these Black women’s willingness to perform this demeaning work, many in this generation would not have advanced. It reminded us that these Black women did this kind of work because there weren’t a lot of other jobs that were available for non-degreed Black women.

It also gives us an opportunity to talk about how deeply racial disparities affect us economically. These hard-working women were not eligible for Social Security, and neither were the lawn men and handymen of that day. They were all paid under the table, so to speak, and thus there was no proof that they had labored at all.

The Help provides further evidence of the extent of racism’s deprivations on Black folks. Yet Black families still managed to take care of their elderly, providing even more proof of our resourcefulness and resiliency.

Maybe, as some are predicting, Viola Davis, who plays the role of Aibileen as if she knows her, will get an Oscar nod. It again won’t be the best role for a Black person to receive the statue for — it’s been given before to a Black woman playing a maid.

But at least this time there was some real dignity in the role!