My husband and I went to see The Help this past weekend. We had each read the book and were absolutely blown away by the movie. I alternated between laughing and weeping. It is one of the best movies that I have seen; it was expertly cast and acted. Each character was believable and true to the book.
It is one of those films (and the same was true of the book as well) that stays with you. I was surprised that it also had such an effect on my husband. I thought it would be interesting for each of us to write our reflections on the movie, given that we were raised across the Mason-Dixon line from each other.
Reactions of the Southerner
As Lewis Grizzard would say, “I am American by birth and Southern by the Grace of God.” I am proud to be a Southerner. It was well after I became an adult that I learned that not all folks born up north are Yankees – many are Northerners. I have come to love Northerners. I married one.
I read The Help and found it to be a very entertaining tale of retribution. On Sunday, we saw the movie. It is one of the best cast and acted movies that I can recall. As with the comedy Modern Family, every role is played to perfection.
However, when I left the movie, I was not quite as proud of the South.
The Help is the story of how the “ladies” of the Junior League of a southern city treated their maids in the early sixties. The book and movie address the social relationships, personalities and conduct which were also the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird and A Time to Kill. Each of these books is set in the South which I love and tells of white villains engaged in shameful, embarrassing conduct; of black heroes and martyrs; and of white heroes in various elements of a southern society. All are Southerners; some are good and some are bad.
As we left the movie, I felt ashamed at the conduct of the villains, as they were Southerners. Upon reflection, though, I have focused on the heroines of the movie – the maids and Skeeter, as well as the incidental heroines and hero, Celia and Johnny, and the mothers of Hilly and, eventually, Skeeter. They were all from the South as well.
I do not believe that the shameful conduct highlighted in this movie was limited to the South, and I fear that such conduct is not completely behind us. Hopefully the lessons of this remarkable story will help each of us to have the strength to be heroes and heroines in this struggle to treat each other with kindness.
The most important hero in my life was my father whose parents divorced when he was very young. He was raised in the 1930s in the Mississippi Delta by his mother’s maid, Lizzy, whom he loved. Many years later, my dad drove ten hours to Greenville to attend Lizzy’s funeral. One of my earliest memories was the spanking I received from Dad when at the age of four or five I used that terrible word. As I said, Dad was a hero.
I am proud of my Southern heroes. Now, if only I can convince my wife to like collards and okra. [editor’s note:
this so isn’t going to happen.]
Reactions of the Northerner
I also do not believe that the issues so expertly shown in The Help were limited to the South. While there were clearly aspects to the times that were either not present in the North or not as prevalent, there were definitely similarities.
My grandparents had two ladies that worked for them named Lucille and Shirley. When we went to visit my grandparents, my brother and I were just as excited to see Lucille and Shirley. Shirley lived with my grandparents; Lucille maintained a separate apartment, but came to my grandparents’ house every day during the week.
Lucille was more outgoing; Shirley was a little withdrawn. I think Shirley saw boundaries more – boundaries which I didn’t see or understand. For Lucille, there were no such boundaries. I often referred to her as my third grandmother. She was fun and energetic. I remember Lucille loved Elton John and Eddie Rabbit and we would dance together in my grandparent’s kitchen if their music came on the radio. When we arrived at the house, it was at times an effort to greet my grandparents first as we wanted to run back and hug and kiss on Lucille and Shirley.
But the reality was that Shirley and Lucille would make all of our meals and serve us while at my grandparents’ house. They picked up the dishes. Lucille made our beds. When we all gathered in the den prior to dinner to catch up on family news, Lucille and Shirley were not included. As these ladies got older, we all made efforts to do more and have them do less, but they still worked.
I knew very little about Shirley or Lucille’s families. As a child I once asked Lucille if she had a husband and she told me that she was married to Charlie Brown. I believed that she was married to a man named Charlie Brown until, as an adult, I realized that she was most likely referring to the Peanuts cartoon and trying to gently put me off the subject.
Both of these women faded from my life at some point. I believe Shirley went into a nursing home. I never visited her there. I remember hearing that Lucille died. I regret to this day not attending her funeral. I considered them both family, and yet I let them “fade away.”
Just as the beautiful characters in The Help, Lucille and Shirley gave of their love to us so freely, yet I think they probably faced constant reminders that they were “help” or employees, and not family. Many of my tears shed in The Help were for Lucille and Shirley. I can only hope that they knew how much we loved them.