This is the kind of movie that invokes
every viewer’s experience with racism. So
this review will reflect a more personal perspective than normally expected,
since emotional detachment is virtually impossible, if not downright
I served a small rural congregation in
the Mississippi Delta in the early 1970’s.
As the (very) young Pastor of an all-white church in the midst of a
predominantly black population, you couldn’t breathe the air without
participating in some form of de facto segregation.
During the candidating visit, my (very recent) bride and I were
invited to stay at the home of the Chair of the Pastor Nominating Committee,
where we were awakened in the morning with a knock on the door and a
uniformed maid entering the bedroom to serve us orange juice on a silver
tray, and to announce that breakfast would be served in the dining room in
Out in the fields, black laborers were
chopping cotton---clearing weeds with hand-held hoes---as they had been
doing for oh, about four centuries. Their
ramshackle houses adjoining the turn rows were of wooden frame construction,
sometimes the old outhouse still visible in the weeds.
At the church, I was introduced to the elderly black janitor as
“Mister Ron” and he was just “Joe”----so, being the supposedly
cosmopolitan, overeducated, young know-it-all that I was, I insisted on
flaunting convention and calling him “Mr. Joe,” and encouraged him to
call me “Ron,” until, after several encounters of poignant awkwardness,
he asked me not to do that. He was
not comfortable subverting those invisible social barriers that had held
together the social fabric of that community much longer than either one of
us had lived.
The whites, for their part, all had
“domestics” in their houses and “field hands” on their farms, but on
the weekends there was a very strict segregation---socially, in the house
parties and clubs, and especially on Sundays, during worship.
And yet, there were also memorable incidents of incredible caring
across the vast chasm of racial divide. Yes,
after enforced busing, the whites had fled to private schools, leaving the
public schools solely to the blacks. Casinos had not yet invaded to
transform the entire landscape, not to mention personal computers, cell
phones, the Internet, or a black man in the White House.
That antebellum-looking world no longer exists.
And yet, I believe I can vouch for the incredible accuracy of the raw
atmosphere created by “The Help,” the fictional-but-true-to-life account
in the 1960’s. It just feels
Emma Stone plays an aspiring young
journalist trying to encourage the house maids of this close-knit community
to tell their personal stories, so she can be published in
. Naturally, they are reluctant, at
first, to upset the delicate social apple cart, but after some appalling
injustices, the wall of silence finally breaks.
There are some truly incredible performances here, most notably by
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as long-suffering household servants, but
also by Bryce Dallas Howard as the snippy socialite and Jessica Chastain as
the “poor white trash” who suffered her own particular brand of
indignities. And who wouldn’t like
Sissy Spacek as the cackling dowager who brings down the whole house of
cards of desperate deception?
This film is practically guaranteed to
generate an emotional response in the viewer.
And, maybe, in the safe and anonymous darkness of the quiet theater,
the demon of personal prejudice can be confronted, exorcised and banished,
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor,
United Presbyterian Church,