Rarely do my wife and I enjoy the same movie and see it in the theater. This, in itself, says a lot about what we both thought about the hot new movie, The Help. In fact, Anita is reading the novel now that we saw the movie.
The Help looks at three very different, extraordinary women in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s, who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project that breaks societal rules and puts them all at risk. From their improbable alliance a remarkable sisterhood emerges, a bond between black and white where it was not permitted, instilling in all three women the courage to transcend the lines that define them, and the realization that sometimes those lines are made to be crossed – even if it means bringing everyone in town face-to-face with the changing times.
What typically drives a story’s narrative is conflict. In a visual medium like film, conflict is generally external, often even excessive. Film critic Burl Burlingame understands this aspect of film, and this film in particular, when he writes: “If the conflict mirrors what lies beneath, or is used as a metaphor, so much the better, but conflict in films is usually amped up for its own effect. When Hollywood makes movies about race relations in the American south, you can count on lynching's and things blowing up and fires and people screaming and bloody murders, plus nobly suffering black people, crazily racist white people and sensitive government agents from outside the south as our tour guides in this vicious landscape.”
Having lived in the deep South in this era, as a teenager, I concur with Burlingame’s insightful comment. This is not to say that the really bad stuff didn’t happen. It is to say that institutionalized racism is more poisonous than the terrible stuff I never saw in my day-to-day life in the Old South. Racism infected every aspect of my everyday life and that of my peers. Like a virus it grew and impacted everything about all of us over time. “The Help” understands this subtlety and presents the problems of the time in a fresh, helpful and moving way.
I believe The Help will receive some serious film awards, including Academy nominations. Many critics believe that this is the sort of film that Oscar loves to promote — a Southern gothic comedy-drama with wickedly observed performances and a story arc that feels absolutely epic, despite the modest, domestic setting.
When I saw The Help I felt like I was living on Westwood Drive in Lebanon, Tennessee, in the 1950s and 60s. I knew women just like the characters in The Help. My father, the most non-racist white man I knew, was summoned during the night to remove a tooth from a maid who worked in another dentist’s home across the street from our home. My father was the only dentist in the county who took the risk of serving black patients and it cost him both financially and socially. I didn’t understand that at the time but some years later I began to realize that my dad was one of the most unusual and courageous white professionals I had ever known. (I said as much when I preached at his funeral.) While my parents were not Civil Rights activists, they taught me the futility and moral deficiency of racism again and again. I grew up with friends who were black and actually saw no differences except for those my white peers insisted upon in private. What I learned, but did not understand as a teen, was that racism truly begins to evaporate when others are no longer seen as “others.”
This marvelous film belongs to women, some well known and some relative newcomers to the big screen. It’s clearly one of the best movies of the year, at least so far. As Burlingame said in his review, “It is Hollywood revving on all cylinders. It’s intelligent without being condescending; evocative of a time and place that exists in the past and lingers in the heart.” Amen.