Weighing in on “The Help”

Against my better judgment, I accompanied my mom to see “The Help” at the theater the other day.

Mom’s a native Mississippian, and I just knew she’d sit there grumbling for the entire two-hour showing — “They didn’t get that right.” “It wasn’t like that at all.” “Everybody wants to make Mississippi out to be worse than it was.”

And so on.

Truth be told, I had some doubts of my own. Let’s face it, the girl who wrote this book isn’t old enough to recall 1960s Mississippi (not that mom could help her — by that time, she and Daddy were living way north of the Mason-Dixon line!)

But everything I’d read and heard said ‘Go, anyway,’ so we went.

And I was pleasantly surprised.

Author Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson, MS; her single mother and her African-American housekeeper raised her. Before signing on with Putnam, she endured some 60 rejection letters for this, her first novel.

In fact, before the book was even published, her lifelong friend Tate Taylor (also a Jackson native, also raised by a single mother and an African-American housekeeper) bought the film rights for “The Help.” Taylor, an Ole Miss grad, wrote the script and directed the film that opened to rave reviews earlier this month.

“The Help” is poignant on so many levels. It describes the multi-layered relationship black maids had with their white female employers in the early 1960s in the south; it speaks to the rules then in place for interactions between blacks and whites; it portrays societal mores of the time.

Some of it isn’t pleasant — some of the white women were horrid to their ‘help.’ Some were horrid to each other, too.

But much of it seems realistic — the fear of speaking out, the fear of crossing societal lines, the not knowing how friendly to be without actually being ‘friends.’

It’s funny; it’s sad; it’s a slice of life too long neglected, this tale of friendship and struggle and hope.

Stockett has said she wrote the book while she was away in New York, dearly missing the housekeeper she’d grown up with and wishing she’d had the chance to get inside her head and ask her what it was like to be her.

Tate, too, speaks lovingly of the maid who helped raise him. He says racism and bigotry form merely the backdrop of “The Help.” The real story, he insists, is about courage and integrity and the necessity for change.

Stockett said Mississippi, to her sons and daughters, is like a mother; one can complain all one wants about her, but don’t let anybody else say a bad word about her!

Maybe that’s what sold mom; I know it sold me. Stockett did her research, and it shows.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie or read the book, do so. For those who have, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts!