The Help: does the movie’s portrayal of racism ring true?

The-help
I was (as we say there) born and raised in Atlanta. I grew up in the Atlanta of the 1960s. Back then, the mayor, a progressive-minded man named William Hartsfield (and back then, "progressive" wasn't a dirty word) made our slogan, "The city too busy to hate."

Keep in mind that Atlanta was also the home of Martin Luther King, Jr

I was a child of the sixties. I remember segregation and integration, which happened while I was in elementary school. I also remember Dr. King's assassination, in Memphis. At my school in DeKalb County, as we watched the funeral on television, I remember our teacher's prediction: "You will always remember this day."

She was right, although we were too young to understand what it meant.

At one time, it had also been the home of the Klu Klux Klan. In fact, it once stood on what is now the grounds of one of the three elegant churches that grace Peachtree Street at the southern apex of Buckhead known as "Christ Curve." The biggest irony is that the church is a Catholic congregation: a religion that the KKK hated. That the priests decided to invited the Klan's Imperial Wizard to the dedication is proof positive that any piece of land can be sanctified.

Which brings me to the questions being raised by the movie based on Kathryn Stockett's runaway bestselling book, The Help:

First, does it vilify its Caucasian characters? And secondly, does it correctly represent the African-American dialects of the time? And finally, do the African-American experiences ring true?

My own opinion: I loved the book. And my personal take on the first is that Ms. Stockett has been true to the South we both grew up in (albeit a few years, and miles, apart).

Before integration, there was a difinitive separation of classes. Whereas some of it was based on "breeding." (Who was your daddy's daddy, and your mama's people?).

Certainly religion played into it. But mostly, it was based on color.

Integration was resented by most of the Caucasian population. No one who lived through it can deny that.

In many ways Hartfield's Atlanta was a bubble of positive race relations, but no one who lived there during those tulmultious times cannot deny that it had its fair share of racial violence. The 1958 bombing of the Jewish Temple on Peachtree Street in Atlanta's Brookwood neighborhood was one very sad example.

My parents had moved to Atlanta in the mid-fifties, from Manhattan, because of a transfer that my father had agreed to. My maiden name is Martinez, and both my parents had been born in Puerto Rico, albeit raised stateside. Like them–and unlike my older sister–I had thick, curly dark hair and an olive complexion, but also light eyes. I remember a little boy in my class asking me, "What are you?" The question stumped me. I didn't know how to answer! I mean, I was a girl, of course. Wasn't that obvious?

His next question shamed me, because I interpreted it as a slur: "Are you a nigger?"

That was a word we never used in my house. Ever. I had no right to feel ashamed.

I wonder if there was a time, even later in life, where he grew to regret his own use of it.

Had I grown up in the North, I'm sure I'd have heard another taunt: "Spic." But since we weren't the predominant minority in Atlanta, that word wasn't as well known back then. I guess we skirted by. Sure, our name was inevitably mispronounced ("Mart-TEEN-ez" became "Martin-EZZ"). That is a small price to pay for the privilege of being allowed to "pass."

To answer the second question: yes, the South has many dialects, for both the predominant races. When I lived there, I could tell if the person speaking to me was from Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina or Texas by his or her "twang." Then again, I could also tell an Aussie from a Kiwi. I guess I have an ear for dialects. It got me into radio. (The need for sanity got me out of it.)

I moved from the South after marriage, to the San Francisco Bay Area. I married a Yankee: a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, who had moved to Atlanta after college. As much as I loved Atlanta and had grown up around Southerners, I never got over the presumption that I might be too exotic for any man who drank rum and Cokes, had gone to UGA (University of Georgia, but pronounced "ugga," like the infamous mutt mascot for that grand institution school) and aspired to a partnership at King & Spalding. 

So, yep, I can certainly relate to The Help's heroine, Skeeter. The world is a very big place. That's a good thing for those of us who must question the local customs, or who refuse to conform to society's current norm.

I take it as a good sign that some people who have seen the movie or have read the book are truly appalled at the class divisiveness portrayed in The Help, and the cluelessness of the cruelty demonstrated by some of its Caucasian characters.

They should be. That goes for all of us. Especially those of us who lived through it. 

When my daughter was in the fourth grade and studying the Civil War, she chided me for my Southern roots. "Mom, how could you have lived in a place where Eva and I could not have been friends?" Eva, her BFF, is African-American. 

After reminding her that I was born more than a century after the Civil War, I had to agree with her, and break the news to her that some people still judge others by their skin color. 

I will always consider Atlanta my home. I am very proud of my hometown, as I am sure Ms. Stockett is of hers, Jackson, Mississippi. The reality is that neither of us can change its history. Our memories, our perceptions and our interpretations of the places we grew up — as well as those of others who also grew up in that time and those places – are ours own.If they don't reflect that of others, so be it. The South can be charming. It can also be provencial and cruel.

Then again, so can New York, Paris, and London. 

But I guess if a commonor can marry a king-in-the-wings, the world is changing for the good.

— Josie

 

 

  

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2 thoughts on “The Help: does the movie’s portrayal of racism ring true?

  1. The reactions to this film have been as predictable as day following night. Broadly speaking white people like it (Oh its the best movie, and funny, I recommend it wholeheartedly) and black people curse under their breath “not another DAMN mammy film again”.
    Lets be clear, simply liking a film does not make you a racist. BUT, fawning over it and saying its the best movie you have seen, funny, witty etc and FAILING to notice the repetition of the same old tired stereotypes and themes DOES suggest that you are perhaps too “comfortable” (and thus not challenging enough) of those images and the status quo.
    That unfortunately DOES make you complicit in maintaining the veneer of living in a “post racial” world despite the glaring inequalities (if you care to look) that still exist.
    Its been done … nothing new here. A movie purportedly about racism afflicting an oppressed community, but actually about the experience of the affluent white person defending that community. “To Kill a Mocking bird”, “Cry Freedom.” “Mississippi Burning.”, “The blind Side” the list goes on …
    To see why white people tend to like these films see these links:
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/warmly-embrace-racist-novel-to-kill.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/force-non-white-students-to-read-great.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/05/rewrite-us-history-so-that-white-people.html
    You will find a few eye openers there that may help take off the blinkers most of us have on, when we choose to fail to see what is happening around us.

  2. Thanks, John, for this.
    While today racism and bigotry is more covert and frowned upon as politically incorrect, I agree with you: sadly, it still exists.
    Frankly, I enjoyed the film on many levels, the first being how it stayed true to the book (as an author, that wins kudos from me) without sacrificing the pacing.
    Just as importantly, I like story, in any medium, that opens new eyes (so many people living today weren’t around during the Civil Rights movement) as to how it was “before.”
    Until we are all blind, we won’t be color-blind.
    But then, I’ll guess we’ll start judging each other on how we speak or smell. It’s always somethin’.

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