Guest Column: ‘The Help’ makes the most of a terrible era
I went to “The Help” on opening night at a packed theater in Tinseltown in Pearl - the only place we could get tickets.
My reaction? “Chick flick.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I don’t think there were any male characters who said more than a few lines. This was a movie about women and the intricate relationships between themselves and, of course, their “help.” So men be warned.
The movie portrays a lot of snooty, spoiled, racist, upper-middle-class Mississippi women treating their maids with gross insensitivity. For every nice person in the movie, there are five mean ones. I haven’t found such depressing ratios in my life’s experience.
The costumes and scenery are awesome. It’s cool that the movie was filmed in Greenwood. I laugh every time I think of my Greenwood buddy Don Brock who successfully captured a one-line part riding on a bus. He told the casting director, “I’m white but I’m gonna play it black.”
I went to high school in Greenwood and still have close ties there. My company publishes the Greenwood Commonwealth. The entire town has been tickled pink by all the attention. This shows you how far we have come.
It is true, the movie portrays Mississippi in the ’60s in a negative light. Positive movies about racial progress don’t do nearly as well at the box office. That’s just the way it is.
But if we must have yet another movie portraying this sordid decade of Mississippi’s history, at least it was written and directed by genuine Mississippians who can provide some measure of redemptive insight. In this regard, “The Help” makes the most of a terrible era.
“The Help” keenly focuses on the symbolic crux of the matter. Whites didn’t want their black maids using the same toilets that they did. The black maids had their own inferior facilities. A key scene is when a maid is fired for using her employer’s toilet.
It was depressing watching this, knowing this practice was definitely widespread for many decades prior to the ’60s. Even today, many whites don’t like to share swimming pools with blacks.
I was somewhat distracted during the movie by my wife Ginny’s emotional sniffles. She was raised by her nanny, Nola, who is practically a canonized saint in the Knight family. I’d be afraid to ask Ginny whether she wants to be buried next to me or Nola.
We have help today. Her name is Mary Merchant. She’s been part of our family for 15 years.
From the time Mary was six until the time she got married at 19, a truck came at dawn to take her to the fields where she chopped or picked by hand. At dusk, the truck took her back home. She got an hour for lunch.
Mary can’t hold back the tears when she recalls those days. “I never have forgiven my father but I try every day,” she told me. “He wasn’t educated and all he could think about was survival.”
Mary’s five children all went to college and now work as managers and professionals. She suffered so her children would not. She accomplished her self-sacrificing dream. Can anyone accomplish anything more in life? Can anyone walk with their head held any higher? What are my accomplishments compared to that? I am proud to share my bathroom with Mary and she has never once gotten on my case about the lid.
All those years working in the fields and as a maid, Mary never got Social Security withheld so she has little government security blanket. But she doesn’t have to worry about that. She is part of our family.
One day I came home and gave my little girl Ruth a big hug with tickles and kisses. I looked up and realized there was Mary, who was far more deserving, to whom I rarely showed outward affection. In a burst of uncharacteristic warmth and spontaneity, I walked over and started hugging, kissing and tickling Mary just as I did to Ruth.
Her eyes practically popped out of her head, but she was smiling and laughing, just like Ruth.
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