I love how life will throw a lesson (or seven) your way, if you’ll allow yourself to listen and be aware. On a whim, I decided to join a friend to see the much acclaimed film The Help, based on the the best-selling book about life in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, which demonstrates the juxtaposition of wealthy white women and their help: the ‘colored’ maids. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but wish it would have been practical to take notes because every 10 minutes or so, I’d find myself noting an important theme, lesson, or relateable moment.
Forgive me in advance if that ends up somewhat like a shortened book report, but with all the thoughts swirling through my head during and after the film, I wanted to try to share some of them here, without divulging the entire plot for anyone who’s not familiar with the story yet.
The largest theme I took away was the courage of both of the females leads: Aibileen (black maid) and ‘Skeeter’ (23 year-old single white college grad). Each of these women demonstrated tremendous bravery within their own confining circumstances that not only could (and did) cause social out-casting, but more so, carried potential legal ramifications. I couldn’t help but think about how lucky we are to live now, only 50 years later, when the issues of segregation and blatant racism are not the mainstay. That being said, it also reminded me that while I’m grateful that this fight was fought (and won), it still exists, at the very least, in undertones. But, in a mere 5 decades, it does seem we’ve come a long way from blatant racial segregation to a black President and other influential leaders (think Oprah, Hollywood A-listers, sports figures, doctors, etc.). I believe we still have a way to go, and that this story of civil rights continues with each generations fight, ours now being gay rights. But, this story was inspiring to show that one voice does matter if you want it to. One brave white women was willing to risk it all to share the stories of those with no voice: the help. And, for the help, to take the risk to speak up in the first place, also risking their livelilhoods and safety because they realized their current existence was no longer something they would just accept. The truth is powerful and they knew that.
Watching the movie, the audience cringes as you watch the ‘crowd’ (all the wealthy, put-together white women), watch each other do wrong to one another and to the help, but no one was brave enough to stand up to it, except Skeeter. As easy as it is to watch and judge these characters, it reflected back to me how we all do this in our own lives. It’s easy at the office, with your friends, family, or other circles to go with the consensus. Most don’t want to ruffle feathers, particularly at their own expense. Think about it: When was the last time you were caught in the middle of debate on politics, finance, sexuality, religion, books, traveling, where to go to dinner…anything….and felt in your gut that you knew you let yourself down and didn’t stand up for what you believed in or wanted? Or worse, when were you in this situation and let someone else get persectued but didn’t even realize you were participating in the stoning? Were you hating on the person who wasn’t college-educated, or was a single or absent parent, or perhaps was gay or transgendendered? What would it have been like to be the only person in the room (let alone the entire region) who had a differing opinion, looking out for the ‘little guy’, and actually stood up for that position? Helps to put into perspective the noble efforts of Skeeter and Aibileen.
What next struck me was Skeeter’s story. (Please accept my quick disclosure that when I write about my personal story in this forum, it’s always tricky to be sure not to offend those who are closest to me, and here I mean the same lack of harm.) Skeeter, like all the wealthy white children in Jackson in the 60s, was raised predominantly by her maid. She expresses that growing up she never felt pretty or good enough. And, as an adult, her interest is not in following the crowd by getting her MRS degree at college and dropping out early to be a housewife, but rather to graduate, pursue her dreams of writing, and not concern herself with her relationship status. I must admit, basically all of this resonnated with me. Growing up, we had live-in nannies and naturally, one becomes close to the person with whom they spend the majority of their time. I will always have a fondness for these women who helped to raise me (again, meaning no disrespect to my parents since I understand their rationale in making this decision) and realize that their impressions on my upbringing each left an indelible mark. Next, for the sake of honesty, when Skeeter flashed back to her memories of feeling overlooked because she wasn’t pretty enough growing up, I was sent back to my childhood, remembering the taunts of people in my life telling me just that. I loved seeing how Skeeter didn’t let it stop her, and have learned, similarly to she, that you deal with the hand you’re dealt, and learn to love yourself regardless. Aibeleen continually told the ‘white baby’ she was raising “you is kind, you is pretty, you is important” (or something along those lines…remember, I couldn’t take notes) because her own mother wouldn’t give her a chance or the attention she deserved because she wasn’t pretty or skinny. Skeeter felt the same way, that her mother overlooked her, in part because she didn’t stack up to her ideals. We all have these scars we take from our childhood (not necessarily these precisely) and like Skeeter, are forced to move on and learn from our ‘hand’, or let it negatively impact us, much like the nasty women who were cringe-inducing in the movie.
Having an almost 2-year-old niece, it reminds you of the pure innocence of children. This was also evident in the movie. The same ‘kind, pretty, important’ child loved Aibileen regardless of whether or not she was ‘colored’, ‘could give her a disease from using their toilet’, or was ‘lesser-than’. She loved her more than her own mother, which she expressed at one point mid-movie. It’s heart-wrenching to see a child getting it right, treating people accordingly to how they treat her rather than by the color of their skin or their perceived social class, and have her very own parents be demonstrating the opposite example.
There was also a black pastor in the movie who preached about loving your enemy to the congregation of black maids. I could barely stand it to sit in my seat silently while they were berated, falsely accused, and treated like they didn’t matter, yet these women (for the most part) were able to keep their cool, be able to love the ‘white babies’ and even some of the white adults (always those who were good to them, generally the previous generation), and swallow their own pride.
Living in the South (albeit a transplant city), it’s jarring to remember that this movie is a true depiction of what life was like in this region within living memory of some of our relatives. It’s easy to forget that this was a part of our American history, or that the KKK was founded in Stone Mountain, GA, a mere 10 miles from my current home. It’s never pleasant or fun to come face-to-face with any issue that’s not easy. That’s why I loved sitting in a theatre full of people of all races, genders, and ages (I mean that…I could hear the 70+ year-olds behind me commenting, “They didn’t have white out yet in the 60s”). I talk a lot in this forum about slowing down and paying attention, and today, when a movie could have just been 2 hours of mindless entertainment, I was glad to pay $10 to hear these lessons and be reminded that I should be grateful for our freedoms, for living now when I’m welcome to write this without fear of being jailed for any oppositional opinions, and hopeful that if I lived back then, I would have been able to have the gumption that Skeeter and Aibileen did, or more so, that I can translate that to the issues of today, not sitting back as a bystander or stone-thrower.