I have to confess that, as a black woman, period pieces don’t always come in very satisfying packages for me. Because of the content, it’s hard not to feel anger, resentment, or frustration watching the lives of 20th century African-Americans play out on screen. The same is true for me of The Help.
Please don’t get me wrong; both the book and its movie counterpart were phenomenal. You must both read the book and see the movie, which premiered on August 10th of this year. I went to see it as a belated birthday present a few weeks ago, and because I was so moved, both negatively and positively, it has taken me this long to write about it. Take a look at the trailer below:
The film is a masterpiece, sticking very closely to the original story, although one or two significant aspects were changed. And I read the book with relish, hardly able to put it down once I started. I literally had to force myself to say, “Enough. Now go to bed, it’s midnight.” I was absolutely enthralled with the vision of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, as if I were there myself as the events unfolded.
In the book, while the racism described is just as bitter as the movie, I found myself slightly detached. I knew the things being said were crude, but I was much easier able to say, “Well, it’s a period piece.” Watching it play out on film, however, turned out to be a whole other ball game. Watching these black women having to cater to the whims of white women who thought nothing of them and made crude and hateful comments directly in front of them, pained me in a way I had never experienced. The racism cuts sharply and deeply, as if I were reliving the moments myself. It was alarmingly unsettling; I left the theater ready to punch the old white couple who sat in front of me and my friend, just because I knew they were old enough to have been there and probably had said those things at some point in their lives.
It’s ridiculous, and downright disrespectful in most senses, to want to hurt an old person simply because you suspect that due to the era in which they were raised, they must be a closet racist. After all, they were raised by the very black women the book and movie chose to celebrate. But our history in the African-American culture has so much hate and hurt entwined within it that it’s difficult not to feel some surge of anger and disappointment when confronted with its truths. Not all white people must hate blacks, nor are all Caucasians from that era closet racists, but films like this stir something inside your soul…as it should, if it’s worth viewing.
What I pray African-American audiences retain from this book/film is awareness and respect: awareness of what the generations before us went through to earn the respect we can command today, and respect for the pains, suffering and disrespect they endured for our sakes, so that we can now sit in a movie theater next to Caucasians without reprisal or shame. In this country, we have forgotten the struggle those before us suffered through and railed against in the hopes we wouldn’t have to experience the same. That racism should unnerve us, not so that we want to harm all whites, but so that we don’t lose sight of what the leaders we lost in the ’60s stood and fought for, so that we can have leaders like Barack Obama in the year 2011.
The Help by Kathyrn Stockett can be found at your local bookstores. Its film should still be in a theater near you. Enjoy.