After initially being rejected by over 60 publishers, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help was finally published in February of 2009. Since that time, this incendiary tale of the small and not-so-small abuses suffered by black housekeepers in the 1960s has gone on to sell over 5 million copies, as it spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List.
Set in Jackson Mississippi during the early 1960s, the film tells the story of Skeeter Phelan, a young southern society girl who longs to become a writer. When Skeeter’s beloved housekeeper is suddenly dismissed under pressure from her mother’s society friends, Skeeter is concerned and begins to document the stories of her friend’s domestic workers. As one black woman after the next courageously steps forward to tell her tale, the book begins to take shape, and a town will be forever changed.
My reaction to this film is somewhat hard to pin down. On the one hand, I am always drawn to stories where someone has the courage to swim against the stream, and in so doing, brings justice to those that have been oppressed. These are important stories to tell, for they remind us that change does not often begin in the corridors of power. Change begins when insignificant people dare to speak prophetic truth into a world that is desperate for truth to be spoken.
On the other hand, movies like this sometimes feel “safe” because they are told from a distance. Fifty years after the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, how many people would genuinely argue that black people did not suffer under white society? So it’s easy to root for the heroes, demonize the villains, and feel as if “the job is done.” And there is a danger in that feeling as if the “job is done” because we are encouraged to believe that we can sit safely in the comforts of our own homes.
How much more exciting would it be to see a story set in the contemporary world in which someone dared to tell the story of the plight of modern day Native Americans or modern day slaves? How much more compelling would it be to have to face our own complicit guilt in avoiding the issues and burying our collective heads in the sand?
In the end, I strongly recommend viewing The Help, and dare you not cheer as Hilly eats the pie.
This film has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic material and language.