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'The Help' tells crucial chapter in history

Posted: August 25, 2011 11:01 a.m.
Updated: August 26, 2011 5:00 a.m.

A few weeks ago, I went to the movies to see “The Help.” I hadn’t read Kathryn Stockett’s book yet, and to be honest, I didn’t even plan on reading it until after I saw the movie.

 The only thing that I knew about “The Help” was that it was a great book that topped bestseller lists since being released two years ago. At the same time, I also heard the movie had been met with more than a little scorn from some African-Americans, who have called it a Disney-ish fairy tale with an implausible ending.

So there I was, sitting in a packed movie theater on opening weekend, listening to two strangers talk loudly about how the black maids who raised them 40 years ago almost felt like another member of their families. Almost.

In all honesty, “The Help” didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already known.

 Most people my age have already heard stories from their grandparents and great-grandparents about what it was like to work in a white person’s house during the Jim Crow era. I’ve heard the stories, too, both good and bad.

 But what makes the movie so great, in my opinion, are the exceptional performances from the main characters who helped elevate the story past what many people feared would end up being a watered-down Hollywood movie about a privileged white woman using the plight of black women to further her career.

 Even though it has received its share of criticism for not showing the harsher realities that many blacks faced during the early 1960s, I honestly don’t think those scenes were horribly missed.

 Watching the scene where Constantine, an elderly maid, struggled to serve lunch to members of the Daughters of the American Revolution as they glared back at her with hate in their eyes was enough to break my heart. Looking at the stoic face of another maid, Aibileen, as she had to stand there and listen to her employer talk about how black people carry different diseases than white people, spoke volumes.

 I can also understand some people’s frustration that black women are still being relegated to portraying stereotypical roles of maids. But I’m still not sure if those people realize that Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis’ characters were such a far cry from Mammy.

 Watching Spencer’s character, a maid named Minny, attempt to use the restroom in her racist employer’s house and then flush the toilet only out of revenge after being caught, shows she had every bit of fight in her as any other civil rights activist.

 And Minny’s pie -- that unfortunate chocolate pie -- spoke volumes about the quiet, yet powerful resistance that helped black women endure the indignities of that era.

 The movie even explores the more positive relationship shared between Minny and Celia -- Minny’s employer whom the other wives consider to be “low-class,” but who treats Minny as a friend. I’m glad because those stories deserve to be told, too, and since reading the book I wish they would have shown more of this relationship.

 Whether or not the movie was condescending or eye-opening is a matter of personal opinion. I have several friends who have asked people to boycott the movie, while others have praised it as being one of their favorite movies of the year.

 True, it may not have been the most accurate portrayal of what really happened during the Jim Crow era. But ultimately, I feel that Stockett and director Tate Taylor largely achieved what they set out to do: tell a story that has never been told, and to tell it in a big way.

“The Help” is more than an entertaining and light-hearted movie about a bunch of black maids who cleaned white women’s homes and raised their children.

 In my opinion, it’s a chance for people to have a greater appreciation and understanding for the women who bore that burden, and it’s a part of history that needs to be told.

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