Last Sunday afternoon, I sat in a movie theater listening to a room full of white women sniffle into their Kleenex while “The Help” drew to its absurd close.
As the credits rolled, I turned to my friend and said, “Now. Don’t we all feel better about ourselves?”
“You’re awful,” she said, but admitted she saw my point.
The movie, like the book, made me angry. Both bear little resemblance to reality. And if you’re wondering why I saw the movie after disliking the book so much, friends assured me the movie was better.
The film’s narrator is a black maid named Aibileen, who lives in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s. Skeeter, the white, upper-class, college-educated and socially connected “heroine,” befriends her in the hope of getting Aibileen and other black women to tell their stories.
Skeeter is ambitious. She wants a job as an editor at a prestigious New York publishing firm, and she sees the black women around her as means to her ends. Of course, this rough-edged ambition is softened by Skeeter’s desire to help her interview subjects improve their lots in life. Insert eye roll.
After much drama and inappropriate hilarity, the book is published, and Skeeter gets her job in New York. She blows out of Jackson, leaving “the help” to clean up. Aibileen is fired, but that’s OK. As she walks down a leafy suburban lane, Aibileen as narrator tells us she plans to retire. She’s raised her last white baby, and she wants to write.
SCREECH — reality check. Retire? On what? After a lifetime of making far less than minimum wage ($1 an hour in 1960), with no Social Security or pension plan, Aibileen couldn’t begin to think about retirement. It’s obvious Hollywood, and author Kathryn Stockett, never let reality get in the way of a good story.
Here’s the reality: From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 black people were lynched in the United States; 539 in Mississippi alone. Statistics aren’t available for the number of black men and women who were denied or lost employment, beaten, threatened, burned out of their houses or shot because they challenged the status quo.
Given that reality, how safe do you think the women of “The Help” would be once it was known they helped Skeeter with her book? Stockett’s fail-safe device — Minny’s chocolate pie with its special ingredient — is ludicrous.
The Ku Klux Klan, with members from all walks of life, including prominent businessmen, was active in Mississippi in the 1960s. The KKK, with the help of law enforcement officials, killed three Civil Rights workers in June of 1964. Earlier that summer they beat and drowned two others.
In the 1960s Jim Crow South, is it likely Aibileen and the other women would lose only their jobs? The reality of that time was brutal, but Stockett and her hand-picked director, lifelong friend Tate Taylor, portrayed it as a lark.
“The Help” is an insult. Shame on me for putting money in their pockets.
Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.