The Help: Two Takes on America's #1 Movie

by Arnum Cohran and Sirami Cohran

Editorial Note: I never planned to see the movie The Help. Really, such things do not interest me beyond a bit of ridicule based on what I see in the commercial for them. I can remember literally laughing out loud when I saw the trailer before seeing Thor, of all things.

However, my nephew Arnum, whom I have profound respect for, and with whom I share a pretty similar world view, saw The Help on Friday night against his will, and LOVED it!

I called him on Saturday morning with a question: Would he write a short piece on why he loved the film, if I agreed to immediately go to the cinema, watch The Help, then write a piece on why I hated it? He readily agreed to the terms, and this is the result. We did not have the benefit of seeing each other's work before publication, so this is not in the form of a rebuttal. Just our thoughts on what has become the #1 film in America.

One major warning: ****THERE ARE SPOILERS GALORE****. Other than that,we hope you enjoy our work.

by Arnum Cohran

Every so often, Hollywood makes an attempt to cinematically express the harsh reality of racism and its effects on the African American community, as well as the country as a whole. Great films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Glory, Amistad, Rosewood, Remember the Titans, and countless others have made valiant efforts to capture the realism and depth of what it must have been like to have suffered at the hands of White Superiority. Sadly, all of the above have fallen short in one way or another. In my opinion, this is due to the fact that although Hollywood loves to appear to care about the plight of African Americans, their true goal is to capitalize on the emotional content that this topic effortlessly incites, tugging at the underlying sympathies of many ticket buying moviegoers. In an effort to appease and or soothe the target demographic, they often rely on what many refer to as the “High John the Conqueror” technique, which means that even though by definition, the antagonist in a movie about American racism must be white people, the hero of the story must always be, whether directly or indirectly, a white person.

Sadly, the 2011 movie “The Help” is no different in that respect. It is the sole reason my girlfriend had to drag me kicking and screaming to a theatre in Highland Park, IL to see the film last night. I intentionally mention the location because, for those that don’t know, Highland Park is one of the wealthiest suburban cities in the country. Its residents according to the 2010 census happen to be 91.2% white and 0.18% black. Suffice it to say, we weren’t just the only black people in the theatre, we were also the only non-whites. I remember walking into the theatre thinking to myself, “Even if the movie sucks, this should make for an interesting experience.” As I would soon find out, that was an understatement.

Referring back to the “High John the Conqueror” technique I mentioned earlier, “The Help” proves the old adage “It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” If you are going to make some random white person emerge from a sea of racism to stand up for the plight of oppressed African Americans in the old Jim Crow south, at least respect our intelligence enough to show how that might be possible. Basing the movie around the premise of white children being groomed into racism while simultaneously being raised by black women seems to fit the bill, at least in my opinion. My limited knowledge of that era in our history leads me to believe in the mere possibility (however improbable) of that sort of moral conflict.

Speaking of morality, or the lack there of, the movie depicts the behaviors and views of citizens in an openly racist society quite accurately. So much so, that it nearly obliterates the unbelievably prevalent myth that racism in America is on a rapid decline. Although the movie takes place in the Old South, the inhumane, disgusting and morally depraved behaviors portrayed in the movie seem all too familiar. We see them every day. Not only do we see them, not only are we affected by them, but we are often tormented by the fact that people go out of their way to convince themselves and others that they don’t understand what’s wrong with this type of behavior. People who display these attributes often rationalize and pretend not to be unscrupulous to the point where eventually, they become convinced.

“The Help” does an amazing job of forcing the aforementioned disillusions into non-existence. When the movie ended, we sat and watched the people around us in the theater, and could not believe what we saw. As the credits rolled, no one moved. They just sat there, looking straight ahead. People who had come in groups weren’t even speaking to each other. It was like they were under some sort of trance. If I were to guess what they must have been thinking, I would start by assuming that whatever it was, they were ALL thinking it. I believe that the movie had done such a good job of showing the TRUE face of racism, and that many of my fellow moviegoers were seeing their own behaviors, as well as those of their communities, unabridged, for the first time.

Now, by no means am I saying that all white people are racist, or that they are all monsters. What I AM saying is that racism is far more prevalent than most Americans like to admit, and I am also saying that this fact is and has been well known by non-white Americans for quite some time. The inconvenient truth is that racism is woven into the very fabric of our great nation, and if anything is ever going to be done to alleviate it (which every American I know will vow means a great deal to them), we must first be able to properly identify what racism truly is. In my opinion, “The Help” does a superb job of this, while being simultaneously entertaining. I hope that this movie serves as one of many catalysts for “The Help” needed to push our society closer and closer to the dream had by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rather than the pretend version we have today.

by Sirami Cohran

There are only a few films I knew I would hate before watching one frame of the film: Birth of Nation, Gone with the Wind, Madea’s What-What Extravaganza. What leads me to watch such films is their supposed sense of having a “wider cultural importance.” In each instance, I walked away from the viewing unchanged in my original opinion.

On Saturday, The Help joined their number.

I could easily rip to shreds the film’s historically inaccurate—or should I say, purposeful obfuscation—of Jim Crow-era Mississippi, which I found doubly-vexing, considering I am the son of two Civil Rights pioneers and a student of History. Instead, I will try not to impose the gravity of what surrounds the movie’s place in time, and just take apart what I saw in the film, itself.

The Help, as it’s press release states, is described as:

“A look at what happens when a southern town's unspoken code of rules and behavior is shattered by three courageous women who strike up an unlikely friendship.”

To start, I was led to believe I would be seeing “three” courageous women in this film. What I saw were many courageous women, in excess of 30, and even a few courageous men, but not the three the filmmaker promised.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer play two Black maids, Aibileen and Minny, who work for seemingly middle-class White families in early-1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. They, and others who toil in their trade, deal with a multitude of every day indignities, threats, tasks and challenges, all while never being elevated beyond the status of an afterthought in the minds of the families they care for.

Emma Stone plays Skeeter, a White, southern society girl who returns home college determined to become a writer, is forced by a NewYork publisher to “send her something fresh,” so decides to document the plight of the maids that populate the same space of her social class, without the benefit of basic human consideration.

And so we are off on an adventure.

Problem being that, while I clearly understand the bravery that Aibileen and Minny display—waking up Black in the South is still courageous in 2011—by agreeing to risk their very lives, and the lives of their families, to speak out about the injustices they encounter on a daily basis, I am left with an absolute blank as to what Skeeter does that is praised by those in the film and you, the real-life public, that can be remotely considered courageous?

Here is a list of opportunities Skeeter had to display courage, and failed:

  • When she asked her parents what happened to her own beloved maid, they tell her an obvious lie. She presses the issue a bit, but then leaves the room instead of searching for an answer she wants to know.
  • When attending the society bridge game, she hears a proposal to make all White homes have a toilet in them for exclusive use by the Help (thus the title), and directly from the creator of the proposals mouth. Does she shout her down? Does she vigorously, or even mildly, debate the insanity of the issue? No, on both accounts, she makes a glancing remark then continues on with her game.
  • When asked at a Society meeting, why she is stalling on doing what was asked of her, she stands up and does not have the courage to say what is really in her heart, instead promising to follow through and get it done.
  • She is forced to go on dates, by her friends and her mother, that she has no interest in going on. Yes, she walked out, but she also showed up before she walked out.
  • Seemingly every opportunity, great and small, to show courage and fortitude by Skeeter is, instead, passed up.
  • Even the book she writes, published as a tome authored “by Anonymous,” allows her to remain in the shadows amongst all, save a very select number of people who have deeply personal stories written about them in the book. Yes, I know her name could not be on the cover because it would have threatened the lives of the maids who shared their stories. Yet, I can’t help but feel it to be another example of Skeeter’s willingness to never confront anything!

Played against the two women who, again, routinely risk their lives, and the lives of their families, to meet with her, Skeeter’s cowardice is magnified. To believe Skeeter is courageous, is to believe there are different types of courage—and I don’t believe that to be the case.

I believe it courageous to be an Societal pariah and yet, not move away and take on the most popular woman in town, as Celie Foote did.

I believe it courageous to continue to try to have children when your body rejects them, and quietly and poignantly keep your suffering to yourself, as Celia Foote did.

I believe it courageous to try to organize a group of your friends to try an change a system that oppresses you, as Aibileen and Minny did with other maids.

I believe it courageous to lead an economic boycott against Jim Crow merchants, as Medgar Evers did.

I believe it courageous to take the side of righteousness, even against family, when it is presented to you, as Holly’s mother did.

I believe it courageous to pass information about organizing in the segregated South on to members of another race, as Henry the Waiter did.

I believe it courageous to take a one in a million chance at providing your children with the best possible future (this time by attempting to send them to college), no matter how wrongheaded, as the maid who took the ring did.

I believe uplifting the earthly lives and giving purpose to a community, while under the threat of lynching, is courageous, as did Preacher Green.

I believe it courageous to face the certainty of your mortality while battling cancer, with grace and without complaint, as did Skeeter’s mother—an otherwise unsympathetic figure.

And I certainly believe all those Black people in the background, who decided not to flee north, instead choosing to stand their ground while living amidst terrorists, were courageaous.

All of this courage was swirling around Skeeter, yet her contribution to the ‘Courage Pot’ was to document it... and secretly.

Even after the story is resolved and the book has been published and the villainess has been rebuffed and the marriages have been strengthened and the stereotypical abusive Black man has been put out to pasture and, as required, Kennedy’s funeral has been relived and the mother has come around to see the quality of the daughter and the maids are m=now being fed by their employers and the church has said, “Amen,” and the older people have faced their demons and come to grips with the folly of the ways and daylight has come and he wants to go home. After all this, Skeeter is yet given another opportunity to be brave.

Momma: I want to buy you some new clothes for New York.

Skeeter: How did you find out?

Momma: I’m a mother, and your publisher called.

Skeeter: But you have cancer and are dying.

Momma: This little ol’ cancer? I’ll be okay.

Skeeter: That works for me, let’s start at Macy’s…

Then again (after she has already told her mother she has decided to go to New York)

Aibileen and Minny: You are going to do great in New York.

Skeeter: I’m not going.

A & M: Why?

Skeeter: I can’t leave you two. After all you risked for me; there are bound to be nasty blowback as a result of the book. You could be killed!

A & M: We will be fine.

Skeeter: Works for me, can you give me a ride to the airport?

Never has the lead character of a movie been given so many opportunities to shine and come up empty. If this were and Indiana Jones film, our hero would have contracted gout on the plane and died of measles during the opening credits.

I get this movie and, more importantly, I get why it works. Every 6-8 years Hollywood decided to discuss the undiscussable: RACE. Sometimes it is done in a profound manner (To Kill a Mockingbird, Do the Right Thing, In the Heat of the Night); sometimes in a decent fashion (Crash, Imitation of Life, Finding Forrester); sometimes it's done tragically (Dangerous Minds, Lakeview Terrace, Obsessed). Regardless of quality, each time one of these films is put out, their importance is discussed widely because our society is yet again presented with an opportunity to discuss the Race Issue. Which is never done in any meaningful way.

I have never understood this phenomenon, as I discuss and am aware of Race in all things. That is not to say I see racism in all things, but being a Black man requires, for purposes of survival, I see things from more points of view than my own. And since I was not raised by cowards, nor raised to be a coward, I discuss all manner of things with everyone I know, Race included. I have never required popular culture to ignite that in me, though I understand my upbringing and life experiences to be unique.

My issue with The Help is not that it is an inferior movie about Race. My problem is that it is an inferior story, which means it had no opportunity to be anything other than an inferior movie, full stop. So by definition, since it is not good film, it cannot be an important film.

And that is my take on The Help.

(As an aside, should you want to see the companion film to The Help, which follows what these “Society Women’s” husbands where doing during their bridge games, please rent Mississippi Burning)

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