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    Heaping Helping of Horse Pucky

    The_Help_Movie_200x135

    Think you “get it” after seeing The Help? Read on.

    By Stephanie Morris-Graves

     

    [dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Minny bakes up a chocolate pie, mixes in her own feces, and serves evil Hilly Holbrook two “delicious” slices, everyone in the theater where I watched The Help exploded into laughter and applause. I didn’t. But we’ll get to that.

    There’s been no shortage of conversation over the last few weeks about the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-seller, one of the year’s blockbusters. As entertaining as it is–blacks and whites alike have raved about the film to me—The Help is a re-warmed version of countless fictitious looks at the Jim Crow-era South, where racism is presented like a Saturday-morning cartoon full of laughs and underdogs and superheroes and good prevailing over evil.

    Everyone walks away feeling great. White people feel good because they know for sure they’re nothing like Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the ruthless, mean-spirited Junior Leaguer who wasn’t afraid to let it be known that her life purpose was to make sure disgusting “negres” (sic) didn’t use the indoor toilets at the homes where they worked as domestics.

    Black people feel good because the soft-spoken Aibileen (Viola Davis) and the no-nonsense, sass-mouthed Minny (Octavia Spencer), who’d for years been wronged by their white employers, get revenge when Minny delivers her poop-filled pie to unsuspecting Hilly, who thoroughly savors every disgusting morsel. Meanwhile, the heroine of the movie, compassionate Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a friend of Hilly’s and a local journalist, sees an opportunity to help the help by writing a story from their perspective for a New York magazine.

    It works every time—the tried-and-true formula for a feel-good film about America’s ugly and ongoing struggle with racism:

    Extreme, brazen racist person (Hilly) commits racist acts against a helpless, hopeless black person, who for some reason possesses tons of god-like inner strength (Aibileen and Minny). The helpless black person always has one nice and compassionate white friend (Skeeter), who is usually scared or nervous or troubled. The helpless black person helps the compassionate white person become a stronger human being by imparting supernatural wisdom, thus enabling him or her to gain a never-before-experienced level of courage and strength.

    The black person typically then fades into the background, while the newly empowered white person spearheads a valiant effort of retaliation against the horrible white racist person, thus saving everyone from the evil that is racism.

    White people leave feeling justified because many seem to enjoy an occasional whipping—as long as it’s self-inflicted—over America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow. Plus, they can applaud themselves because they’re certainly not that terrible racist Hilly person and are likely aligning themselves with the compassionate white person. Black people leave feeling satisfied, because not only were we validated by a good white person like Skeeter—we often seek this kind of approval—but we were able to get nasty revenge on the bad one.

    What we miss is that although everybody leaves feeling good, they leave unchanged, because all of these factors cancel each other out and we’re right back where we started—divided, distrustful, and separated by choice.

    Which brings me back to Minny’s poop pie.

    We’ve seen this type of vengeance before in movies: pee in lemonade, spit in water, etc., but The Help takes it to a new, savage level. The egregious failure of this movie is the supposed punch line of Minny baking her bowel movement into a pie. Sure, it’s passed off as rough justice, funny and cruel at the same time, and everyone clapped as the Mammy-like Minny stood wide-eyed watching Hilly eat her poop. But I have a sinking feeling that, unbeknownst to most of the people who celebrated this act, it served to reinforce the Colonial-era view of black people as unbridled savages who without hesitation can indulge in beast-like behavior such as baking one’s own feces into a pie and serving it.

    Not funny.

    Racism is only dealt with when we deeply examine our hearts. We might leave The Help feeling good because our personal evil doesn’t descend to the level of Hilly’s. But what goes on in the silence of our minds when we pass a young black girl on the street, wearing revealing clothing and with three young kids in tow? What about when we ask the black man sitting in first class if he’s a rapper or athlete?

    How does that chip on our shoulder play out on our jobs? Is it OK to make white people squirm in fear of being cursed out for one misspoken word?

    I submit that most of us are a lot like Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s mother, who’s ruled by good and evil, and the one that wins at a given moment is the one that proves most advantageous for ourselves. Hilly, in fact, isn’t the most pathetic character in the movie; she’s a caricature, a joke, and as such is easily dismissed. But Charlotte, who was likely kind to and at some level loved her “help,” quickly turns on her domestic Constantine to save face with her friends when she sees that they’re annoyed with Constantine’s slow service at lunch and demand that Charlotte do something about it.

    Blacks and whites shouldn’t evaluate themselves against silly extremes like Hilly and Minny but against the Standard, Jesus Christ. It can start with a question like this: Do I have the courage to make selfless, godly decisions in spite of prejudice, in spite of injustice, and in spite of personal gain? •

    Stephanie_Morris-Graves_headshot-bw__200x190Stephanie Morris-Graves is a publicist and freelance writer. She lives in the Dallas area with her husband and their two children.  

    Stephanie Graves
    Stephanie Graves
    is a publicist, freelance writer, and graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in the Dallas area with her husband and their two children.

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    6 COMMENTS

    1. Funny enough, I went to see this movie with five friends and we enjoyed it so much that three of us went back a second time. This article makes me ask myself – how did I miss the writer’s interpretation of it?

    2. Spot on Stephanie. Thanks for your critique/editorial on this–I’ll pray it serves as the poignant reminder for all of us. Be blessed.

    3. I disagree. I didn’t leave the movie feeling like I was better than Hilly. I left feeling inspired to help people who are being oppressed by others, no matter who that is. It made me want to be kinder to people, to realize they are dealing with a lot more than I think they are. And never did I ever think that Minnie’s poop pie made her a “savage,” just someone who wanted revenge BADLY (when hasn’t one of us been tempted to do something horrible to someone who hurts us? Whether we do it or not depends on who we are).

      I also didn’t think that the women possessed “god-like inner strength.” What? Did Minnie show that when she made the poop pie? No. They showed real, human weakness and emotion.

      I came away feeling like I should do the right thing, regardless of the outcome, and it made me feel like I should do that with my faith in God – stand up for what I believe is right for God no matter what people say and do to me.

    4. Stephanie, your review is insightful. The Terrible Awful was pretty hard to swallow; no pun intended. The movie was actually shallow compared to the book. It didn’t bring to life the fear or angst of being black during those years – or the great risk in meeting with the writer. The girl who decides to write the stories is much more defined in the novel as are her relationships with her parents and the young man she dates.
      Bottom line; read the book.

    5. Stephanie, thanks for a helpful critique. When films are universally lauded there is little room for honest reflection.

      The movie’s strength is its talented cast. Its weakness is reliance on stereotype.

      Rather than present Hilly as a flawed but complex person, she is reduced to stereotype. The movie does lessen this with Celia. But although Howard and Chastain are excellent performers, their characters seem underdeveloped and clichéd.

      Your point about Charlotte being representative is excellent. And regarding Minny, your objection to the Terrible Awful as a source for audience approval seems justified. That the spoiled pie ultimately provided protection for the maids against future retribution should not pardon it for being a malicious and vulgar moment of revenge.

      As imperfect as it is, the movie and the discussion that it generates such as yours, might further a more Biblical approach to race matters and human relations.

    6. Stephanie,

      What an excellent movie to critique! However my response to the movie and my love for it comes of the historicity of the movie and the setting of the movie. I grew up in the era and the state that is the setting of the movie. I thought it was an excellent portrayal of that time period.

      I also left the movie excited to remember where God has brought us from. Those of us who survived the scathing racism in the deep south and the violence in the south against equal rights – know it was only by the Grace of God, standing on His Word, His promises to us, and our hope in Christ that better days were ahead.

      Racsim is still alive and well in America. Let’s not allow it to exist in us, the people of God. I invite all who view The Help to view in its historical context.

      CG

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