What Davis, Spencer, and every Black actor in this film (including Cicely Tyson) does, is uplift the viewer with characters who carry themselves with dignity and go about their work with pride despite a “Godless” Jim Crow system constructed to deny them all shreds of either. I understand why we have a guttural reaction to such themes. It’s why I couldn’t get into the book. We’ve been there, done that, and eaten more than enough popcorn at films that revisit that nightmarish era, showcasing our stories of abuse, indignity, and lack of everything—opportunity, education, wealth, parity.
Which is why some folks are just mad that this film was made at all. Why, with all of the great stories we have yet to tell on film, are we revisiting this old mill yet again? Why, with the ongoing dearth of meaty roles for Black actors, are our best and brightest still relegated to singing the same old songs? Why, in the era of the nation’s first Black president, is “the summers’ feel good hit” about Black maids in Jackson, Mississippi? Who can feel good about that?
Well, the all-Black audience in the theater I was in, for starters. And First Lady Michelle Obama, who hosted a special screening of The Help at the White House. Why? Because the film is about sisterhood. It’s about average people—not the handful of names captured in history books, but the countless unnamed hardworking, striving folks—who harnessed the courage to commit the countless quiet acts of defiance that enable her to live on Pennsylvania Avenue and me to sit in an office on 5th Avenue in New York and write this blog today. It’s about the triumph of right over wrong; justice over injustice; humanity over wretchedness; the oppressed over the oppressor. That’s what all the clapping was about!
We paid $11 to see a feature film, not a documentary (like the hallmark civil rights series Eyes on the Prize, which journalist Nelson George compared The Help to in a lengthy analysis in Sunday’s New York Times). Any such comparisons are simply unfair. Unlike a documentary, designed to educate and inform, The Help is clearly designed to entertain, to distract, to transport viewers to another time and place—a fictional one. It does that.
The best movies also uplift. Even films designed to thrill, shock, amuse, amaze or scare the crap out of you, become something bigger, better and more memorable if they transcend all that and leave you feeling inspired. The Help does that, too. For $11, that’s all you can hope for, and it’s more than we often get at the movies these days.
If you read the book and saw the movie and simply felt (like many of my friends did) that the book was better, I get it. I have yet to see a movie that surpasses the book on which it was based. Such is the nature of literature, which is why we need to get our children to read more and watch screens of all kinds and sizes less. But that’s another issue…
If you saw the movie and are now grinding an axe that has nothing to do with comparisons to the book or—worse—if you have decided not to see the movie simply because of what you’ve heard or read, see it. Then, let’s talk. We spend so much time nurturing our anger and shame; we should be the proudest people on earth, given all that we’ve endured. This movie, if you allow it to, makes you feel proud.