The Help

The Help

***

 

It is a popular theory that young people today are very different from than their parents and grandparents.

Kids today are supposedly dumber, ruder, and lazier than their previous generations, with shorter attention spans and a higher propensity toward reckless and irresponsible behavior.

My observation is that older people always have something bad to say about “kids today.” It seems like every generation believes that society is breaking down and that things are getting worse.

I disagree. I think that people from every era have pretty much the same wants and needs and virtues and flaws. Technology certainly is advancing, but the basic rules of society don’t change all that much.

In this world of continuity and social stability, there has been one really huge change: the Civil Rights revolution of the mid to late 20th Century. It is literally hard to believe that my parents grew up in a United States that allowed – even sanctioned – the segregation and subjugation of black people.

To its credit, Hollywood embraced the civil rights cause from the beginning. Bravo to Hollywood for making movies that remind us of our country’s ugly Jim Crow past and acknowledge the debt that we owe to the brave freedom fighters who destroyed it.

But in their zeal to present the victims of racism as sympathetic and unthreatening, filmmakers erred in the other direction by creating bland, milquetoast, unrelatable black characters.

Instead of challenging white America to accept real, flawed, emotional black protagonists, Hollywood tries to make the argument for equality more convincing by only showing up stoic, saintly black characters – with superhuman patience, forgiveness, and decency.

“The Help” follows the long Hollywood tradition of white-washing black people on the silver screen.

Writer/director Tate Taylor paints of a vivid picture of a world that happily no longer exists. He takes us inside the houses of 1950s Jackson, Mississippi and shows us the strange, complicated relationship between upper middle class young women and the black maids who cleaned their houses, served their food, and effectively raised their children.

Just to make sure everyone in the audience is rooting for the underdog maids, the film’s racist villainess (Bryce Dallas Howard) is laughably diabolical, despicable, and desperate while the black women are all selfless, pious, and dignified.

Even though Taylor slavishly adheres to the rules of political correctness, he still managed to make an effective drama.

Emma Stone is more likable than usual playing Skeeter Phelan – a plucky, independent young newspaper columnist who comes up with the bold plan of interviewing some of the town’s black housemaids and compiling their stories into an eye-opening book.

By questioning and challenging the peculiar rules of southern apartheid – the separate bathrooms, separate schools, separate legal systems – Skeeter and her subjects were both breaking the law and putting themselves in danger.

But the outrageous Jim Crow establishment needed to be eradicated, so a few brave maids (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer) decided to be heroes. Generally, I think people should conform to the rules of society and avoid stirring up trouble. But the civil rights revolution was a time for heroes.

Thanks to the victory of the civil rights movement, we all live in a society where everyone is subject the same laws and we are free to socialize with people of different races and share the best things about our respective cultures with each other.

We live in a better world due to the sacrifice of the civil rights activists and “The Help” is a well-deserved tribute to them.

It’s an overly long tribute, though. There are about five different sappy happy endings that drag the film out well past two hours.

“The Help” tells a good story; an important story. But just because the civil rights cause was so utterly righteous doesn’t mean that every civil rights advocate was a saint. Hollywood needs to make a film called “The Jerks Who Junked Jim Crow” to make up for movies like this.

 

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