Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark
The Help is a movie about transition. It is about people who are caught in the path of volcanic change and history in the making. It is 1961 in Jackson, Mississippi. But the movie doesn’t dwell on these lofty platforms. The viewer is swept up in the riveting performances of those who bring the story and its time alive and make it real. Performances that twist us and wring from us real tears, some laughter, and a lot of anger. But change comes hard and slow for the help in Jackson, Mississippi. Telling their own stories and putting them on paper is like pushing a boulder uphill, or swimming against the tide. And every bit as dangerous.
I turned 13 in 1961, born and raised in rural Alabama. I remember signs for “coloreds” and “whites”, but as a child I did not understand what it all meant. My formative years were the 1950s, and as a young child, I thought it was just the way things were. I didn’t know there was any other way. I just know that when our family made our weekly trip to town, that my best and only playmate was a little girl my age who was black. We’d look around Miss Annie’s store cause she had a lot of toys on her shelves. Then we’d play around the lake in back (it was more a lovely pond), and walk around it balancing on the rock wall. I liked her and she liked me, though neither one of us thought there was anything odd about it. At least I didn’t.
She was related to a black couple who I thought were old when I was a child, but they may not have been. I was taught to call them “Aunt” and “Uncle”. I used to visit their house occasionally, never suspecting I might not be welcome. But I do remember that they were kind, or at least tolerant in the way most adults were toward children back then. But they didn’t smile much. Not happy smiles anyway.
My dad worked on a dairy farm. We lived in a small house in a wide valley. The owners and dad’s employers lived in a big beautiful white house up on a high hill that we looked up at everyday. At six and seven years old, I loved to climb up the path that led to the big white house and talk to their maid. I was rather in awe of her because of her nice black and white starched uniform and how dexterously she handled all the fine things that filled the rooms.
I remember once that I started carrying a hammer hung on the side belt loop of my blue jeans. I thought it gave me an air of purpose, like if I happened upon something that needed fixing, I was the gal for the job. I bent the maid’s ear about it, but fortunately she didn’t fall for my fix-it plans. I remember she didn’t smile much, either, though I’d never heard a harsh word from the family. I just knew she didn’t run me off when I came for a visit, so I thought it was because she liked my wee company, not because I was white and she didn’t dare send me packing, even if I was just the dirty little kid of the other hired help. Our house didn’t have running water at this time, in the mid-1950s. I toted water from the spring house down the road. I was strong for a girl. Maybe it was from totin’ water buckets and swinging hammers at stuff that nobody cared about.
We moved to another farm when I was 8 years old. It was in the greater Birmingham area. I was a naive bookworm in my early high school years when I was 14 and 15, so when the riots began I was clueless. One day they shut down my school with all of us in it because the marchers were coming, and the big yellow buses made a barricade out front, nose to tail, like wagon trains in the Old West. Every kid who had someone to pick them up got out ahead of time. I had nobody to pick me up because my family had no phone. But as it happened my dad’s employer, who was also our good neighbor, heard the word and came and picked me up. When I got in the car I asked him — “What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to do something?” His quick and curt reply was, “You stay out of it”.
A couple of years after high school found me working at a restaurant in downtown Birmingham. I shared a small apartment with a roommate whose group of friends included a young black man and a white guy with shoulder-length hair. Far from being drugged up hippies, these two were witty, educated, and intelligent, and I liked them. One day my roommate, also a waitress where I worked, came in with them on her off time. Nobody waited on their table, so, even though it wasn’t my station, I went over to take their orders till their waitress could get to them. I guess I was still young and clueless. I didn’t realize no one was going to get to them deliberately. The manager (whom I’d already pegged as a jerk anyway) stopped me on the way by. Pointing his finger in my face he said, “We don’t serve hippies and niggers in here. Go tell them they have to leave.”
For a moment I froze. I needed this job. But then a slow-burning rage began to make its way up out of some really deep places. I told him if anybody needed to get out it was white trash like him, and proceeded to tell him what I thought of him and his overbearing ways. We were in each others faces in a yelling match and at some point I quit and he fired me. I can’t recall which came first, but it didn’t matter. I burned that bridge, and fervently hoped he would go down under it.
But still some of my Southern roots still clung to me like poison ivy. I liked this group of friends when they came for a visit, but I was uncomfortable being seen with them in public. This was Birmingham and I got stared at a lot, and not in a good way. It was like people were boring knives into me with their eyes. I finally came clean with the black friend and told him how I was feeling. Like the time with the bus barricade, I felt I needed to make a stand for something. But how do you make a stand when you don’t even know where you stand or why?
I had the best mentor in straightening out racially skewed thinking in that young man. I would come up with something that I knew was biased and prejudicial to find out his side of it. He never got angry, but he would quietly and with utmost logic, tell me how and why these attitudes were wrong. Here was someone I knew and liked personally who was telling me how he felt having to fight for an education. How his people, Americans, who lived and worked among other Americans of a different color, deserved the right to live and learn and work and raise families as fellow citizens under the Constitution. It was his story, told in personal details, that finally caused that inner poison to wither and die on the vine.
I never knew what became of that young man, but I know he had to go far. And so many years, and so many miles have gone by since, that I can’t recall his name. But I’ve never forgotten him, or how he opened my eyes and my heart to what was good and right.
In this movie, The Help, I feel that viewers everywhere are getting an opportunity to see the other side of the picture. The ’60s were a long time ago. Maybe some of the lessons we learned have faded with age. Maybe new generations have forgotten what Martin Luther King was about and what his sacrifice was for. Sometime in the ’90s I felt that many black kids a generation removed from these sacrifices, were squandering what they had been given. The dropout rate was bad and the attitudes were that drugs and wealth without work or sacrifice was their future. In my newspaper column, I wrote an open letter asking them if they had forgotten. A young black man I knew called and cried over the phone. “I wish you could have written that years ago,” he said, “before my brother got on drugs.” The black assistant high school principal came and asked me if he could use it for their assembly time. “It’s your story,” I told him. “Use anything you like whenever you like.” See, I was just passing along a story I’d heard from a quiet and courageous young man who changed an important part of my life.
Now the story has been told again by author Kathryn Stockett, and made real in the awesome performances of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Aunjanue Ellis, and many more. I saved Cicely Tyson’s name for last, for she will break your heart.
Are there problems with the movie? A few. But it’s the performances that will make it a classic. I can’t believe anyone could be disappointed in watching it. And it might even open your eyes and your heart to what real flesh and blood people had to endure to start making this country truly free for all its people. For black and white, rich and poor, the stories just keep on reminding us.