The Help, a film version of the bestselling American novel about the lives of African American maids in the Deep South of the 1960s, has caused a great deal of controversy. This is partly because the film was written and directed by two white people who had the temerity to put words into the mouths of working- class black women.
The story is simple, even classic: a young writer, estranged from her privileged world, looks around her and suddenly sees the "help" – those working for her – as human beings. One of the maids, whose story the writer tells, is released from her own miserable existence to tell her own story in her own way.
Some of the commentators and critics who have been up in arms over this film, on both sides of the Atlantic, believe it gives permission to a kind of "neo-Mammy" syndrome, named after the head maid in Gone with the Wind who was played by the great Hattie McDaniel. But McDaniel was bigger than "Mammy" and knew exactly why she played so many maids: "I'd rather play one then be one." There are moments when you might ask yourself if the film-makers got it right.
In the middle Sixties, I was part of a small group of high-school students sent to a posh suburb on the north shore of Lake Michigan north of my hometown of Chicago, to de-segregate a high school there. The train going up was filled with women going to work in mansions. I overheard them talk, with great affection and candour, about their "babies" and their "ladies". I, one of the "Burn Baby Burn" [Civil Rights unrest] generation, was getting a lesson every morning in nuance and contradiction.
And it is this which The Help captures with great precision: the wall in the maid Aibileen's (Viola Davis) home decorated with that painting of Jesus that every black family back then had; the "yard" full of chickens picking around; and above all, the forensic analysis of the white women they worked for.
I am half-Mississippian, the daughter of a share-cropper born not far from where the film was shot, and I recognise every black woman in it. Davis, in particular as Aibileen, the maid who finds her own voice in the end, will win every prize she is nominated for.
If you want a documentary, this is not the film for you. But if you want the truth imparted in the way that only a great actor and a heart-warming story can do, see The Help.
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