Why "The Help" helps

Sam Smith

A few months after the last scene depicted in “The Help,” I started The Idler, which would eventually morph into the Progressive Review. In the first issue I ran excerpts from letters from Mississippi written by my friend, Gren Whitman, who was taking part in the 1964 Mississippi organizing. Gren would survive the summer but three other young men – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner wouldn’t. They were murdered while working for black voting rights. Chaney was black; Goodman and Schwerner were white.

When, the following February, the US Civil Rights Commission held hearings on the subject in Jackson I went down to cover it. My story began:

And the Lord came to the Good Man and said, “Son, I want you to go to Mississippi and help the poor people down there.” And the Good Man replied, “Lord, I’ll go if you’ll be there with me.” And the Lord said, “Son, I’ll go with you, but only as far as Memphis.”

Mississippi, despite civil rights laws, statements of principle and hints of progress, still inspires Negroes to tell such stories, stories born in the deepest frustration, despair and anger.

Last February, the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights went the other side of Memphis, to Jackson, Miss., to view for itself this state, that, 100 years after the end of Civil War, remains morally and philosophically seceded from the Union.

Several thousand words later, I ended:

Mississippi is changing. As the stranger sees the small signs and smiles, his confidence is renewed in the process of democracy.

He leaves the state shoving the memories of callousness and cruelty aside to make room for more pleasant thoughts of progress, statements of principle, and communications between the races.

But as he stares out the window of his compartment on board the Southerner rumbling towards Birmingham, Atlanta and the North, the memories keep forcing their way back. Tar paper drooping from wretched walls; torn, rusted iron roofs that will not last another season, and weathered faces that deteriorate silently as the train passes.

An aging Negro stops in a field to wave at the train, then turns without waiting to see if anyone is waving back.

Mississippi is changing.

Will he know it?

I had been in Jackson, Mississippi, about a year after story of “The Help” ended. And, like those in the film, it had changed my life forever.

In the next five years I would end up as the guy who dealt with the media for Washington’s SNCC chapter, headed by another twenty-something named Marion Barry. I would be sitting in the basement of the SNCC office when Stokely Carmichael arrived and announced that whites were no longer welcomed in the civil right movement. Not long after, I would be covering the riots in Washington for the community paper I edited. Two of the four major riot strips were in our neighborhood, one just a few blocks from our house. Biracial efforts to stop anything like that in our community had failed. Then, just two years later, I found myself helping to form a local third party comprised of blacks and whites who had somehow forgotten that things were hopeless. The party would hold elected posts for 25 years.

I had been introduced to change.

Several writers for progressive news services have attacked “The Help.”

Wrote Julianne Escobedo Shepherd:

“In The Help’s case, the history of civil rights in the virulently racist Southern town of Jackson, Mississippi, is neatly packaged into a heartstring-tugging Hallmark card. . . “

The Association of Black Women Historians declared::

“Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. . .

“Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. . .”

Richard Schickel is a bit kinder:

“It is not quite a game-changer. The movie is, for all its well-made slickness and sniping racism, too genteel. It is aimed at a feel-good ending. . .The movie rarely gets at the things that truly hurt and distort the relationships between an upper class and an underclass. It is all hominy grits instead of true grit, aiming finally at a foretold reconciliation that rings false. There has to be a lingering suspicion (and hatred) that “The Help” cannot bear to contemplate. It wants us to believe that all involved learned their costly lessons in the Mississippi of 50 years ago.”

The articles prepared me not to like the film. Instead, I found myself more troubled by the criticism, reflective of time when even individual stories are supposed to be properly branded to be worth anything. When we have all become tools of an iconic and ideological machine shop and if we don’t die saying something like “fight racism” as our last words, we shall have failed.

But life isn’t like that. And neither is change. It’s one of the reasons liberals have so much trouble these days. They’ve forgotten the people part of the story.

We are people, not causes. We do things that are stupid, half-right, heroic, funny or sad. And when they are interesting enough, authors and film makers tell us about them.

Further, people produce change, not slogans. And these are people who are of the same variegated quality as one finds in the rest of life.

“The Help” is the story of a few people who helped to produce change. They don’t have to have appropriate accents, be game changers, or address all the historical events around them.

I found myself thinking of some activists. People like my college buddy Gren, who had been a paratrooper, high school wrestler and nicknamed Rocky, and in 1964 had gone to Mississippi. I thought of Stokely Carmichael, the guy who told us that whites were no longer welcomed in the civil right movement, visiting the civil rights activist Julius Hobson despite the fact that Hobson had a white wife. Carmichael learned things from Hobson and so did I.

I thought of black civil rights activists dissin’ white liberal members of Congress as unreliable and of the man they called an Uncle Tom, Mayor Walter Washington, standing up to J Edgar Hoover and telling him, no, he was not going to shoot looters during the riots. I thought of my two Texas white bosses at the radio station and news service for which I worked, who sent me out as early as 1959 to cover protests and interview civil rights leaders because they cared about it all despite their color, accents and place of birth.

I thought of how a younger person might find the church scenes corny because they had never, as I did once, held hands with those beside me and sung 23 chorus of We Shall Overcome waiting for someone to show up.

I thought of a handful of important civil rights activists I worked with who later lost their way and ended up in prison, one of them being Marion Barry.

And so on. . .

Part of our problem is that we have hard time following the sage advice of Barbara Tuchman who said, “To understand the choices open to people of another time, one must limit oneself to what they knew; see the past in its own clothes, as it were, not in ours.”

So the sound of a southern black voice from the 1960s does seem fake. Something like a black man speaking of the police chief, “Now, Mr. Dan – he’s real nice. He’s always polite to me.” But that wasn’t from “The Help;” that was from actual testimony before the Civil Rights Commission in 1965.

Or the use, in the articles we ran, of the term “Negro,” then the standard description, but now somewhat jarring.

One irony about the criticism is that “The Help” is an unusual film about civil rights in that women play the leading role. Women, both black and white, too often got the short end of things in those days and, in fact, the attitude of male civil rights activists towards women helped build the feminist movement.

The best way to look at a film like “The Help” is to bear in mind the wonderful description of saints: sinners who try harder.

To institutionalize change, to be too judgmental of those participating in it, to make too many rules about the right way to talk about it, doesn’t help change at all.

I was reminded of this near the end of the film, which actually has an uncertain and not positive ending, when Aibileen spoke of loving one’s enemies. It’s an alien idea to many liberals these days, even if Martin Luther King reminded his aides that one day the people they were fighting would be their friends. There’s no way you can really produce change and have things stay the same.

But too often today, people think it’s enough just to trash the Tea Party and others who are being misled by the rightist powers that be. The idea of conversion has all but disappeared.

I sometimes remind folks that we have always had Christian fundamentalists; we just used to call them New Deal Democrats because their political minds were on something else. I have always tried to go after the big bastards and treat the rest as their victims, to be freed or educated or given something better to think about. So I smiled when the just fired Aibileen said what she did.

And there’s one other reason I liked “The Help.”

I grew up in a well-off family with six children and a black cook.

Things were strict. For example, Sunday funny papers were banned. It was customary to head for the kitchen on Sunday afternoon and read them anyway in a large food closet, certain that Rosetta Minor would cover for us in the event of a parental intrusion. Throughout our lives, Rosetta ran an internal underground railroad for “my children,” using guile — and prevarication if necessary — with steadfastness and skill.

In the kitchen, the radio played gospel music and sermons from a low power station. Even through the static, the rolling chords, joyous voices and charismatic cajoling were in stunning contrast to the stolid hymns and stifling liturgy of the Episcopalianism to which I was being rigorously introduced. It never occurred to me, however, that religion was any different than the color of your skin; it was just something with which you were born. Still, the sounds from that low power station were laying the foundation for future apostasy. In this and many ways, Rosetta’s kitchen became a school for my subconscious.

Further, Rosetta was the one person in the house I could go to and feel – as Aibileen told Skeeter – smart, kind and important.

Once, I mentioned to Rosetta that when I had suggested leaving our baby boy with my parents while we took a trip, my mother had said, “I have raised six children and I don’t want to raise any more.”

In a rare moment of anger, Rosetta responded, “What she mean she raised you?”

I couldn’t argue with that then and I can’t now.

It may even help explain why, like Skeeter in “The Help,” I became a writer and did some of the things I did.

And how I learned that change doesn’t have to be neat; it just has to be in the right direction.

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