Just returned from the movie, The Help, and am processing scenes from the late 1950's and early 1960's in Jackson Mississippi, where black women and men literally constituted "the help" for the rich whites living in the mansions with the surrrounding willow trees.
The return home of a white Ol' Mis' graduate, "Skeeter," to take a job in the local paper, as part of her apprenticeship prior to being hired by Harper Row in New York provides the catalyst for, first a column on "cleaning" in answer to reader questions, and second a book consisting of interviews with black women serving not only as cooks and cleaners but also as surrogate mothers to the young children of their employers.
Or course, the very thought, not to mention the act of participating in the recording and documenting the stories of these black women, "from their perspective" is not only illegal under Mississippi law at that time. It is also very dangerous because of the mountain of the until then repressed secrets of mistreatment of the black women by their white upper class employers.
It is the courage, determination and persistence of the one or two black women, at the beginning, and eventually by some twenty others, that inspires both the movie and the audience. In the middle of the story, both Medger Evers and President John F. Kennedy are shot, Evers by the KKK and Kennedy by Oswald.
Of course the book, entitled "The Help" sells many copies, often secretly, to all the people in the town of Jackson, with repercussions that, for some are tragic and for others, a relief, so much so that the black community church is pressed to honour the two women at the heart of the book.
The story is in the vein of the whistle-blower, only this time it is a group of black whistle-blowers whose stories open the vault of town secrets previously considered untouchable. And the hard working, poor black women of Jackson are the eventual heroines of the piece.
Tastefully staged, costumed, written, directed and produced, the movie takes us all back to a time when innocence about the ugliness of racism in the south had not been fully disclosed in most northern states, and certainly not in Canada.
Held over for a third week in this town of 120,000, (an unusual engagement, where movies last a mere seven days normally), it must be striking a chord, both of memory and of hope, given the courage of these women to step up, to tell their story, and to face the consequences of their bravery when their "tell-all" hits the book stores.
The human capacity for mean-spirited bigotry is revealed in the most miniscule of gestures, all of them magnified in the eyes of the victim, so that we are better able to walk in their broken shoes, as part of our own transformation.
While the movie will provoke thought, it will also be as likely to engender hope. If these trampled women, by whites and by their own spouses, can rise up together in solidarity, then there is hope for all people enduring oppression.