Bringing A Painful History To Life:
The Help, addresses a past that many don’t want to think about. It does so with an eye toward exploring the more day-to-day, year-to-year, interpersonal dynamics of the South during the heat of the horror that was Jim Crow and all that preceded it and followed in its wake — rather than the larger, more sweeping sociopolitical ramifications.
It is a history that Emma Stone has said that many of her friends, and the people of her generation, have received very little education about. A history that still echoes in the present. For Tate Taylor The Help offers a vision of where we have been and how far we have come.
It may also offer an opportunity to take an honest look at where we are now.
“We’re not educated,” Viola Davis said of the history of racism in the United States.
“It’s swept under the rug. It’s the big white elephant in the room of our culture. It’s probably a part of our hypocrisy, that we’ve had a brutal history of race, a three hundred and forty six-year history. So, I mean, I’m well aware of it because I made a point of making myself well aware of it, even at a young age, in my twenties. So, I knew what the day-to-day life was like, and I think that if anything I hope the book – I know the book and the movie will bring that to life. I’m going to say what I’m going to say with a grain of salt; you hope that while people are being entertained and are laughing – we as Americans just want to be entertained and part of that is to escape whatever ills are going on in our personal lives and our political lives – but I hope that people aren’t laughing and having such a good time that they miss, even within that laughter and all of that, the larger message that it does have an impact on people. We always want to shrink from it. I find in my life that whenever I’ve shrunk from anything it’s always come back to bite me right in the behind or it always keeps that dysfunction going. There’s enough of that. I think we’ve matured enough as a culture to step away from that. So, I hope that people will take that away from the movie.”
When asked if in addition to providing historical context, the film opens up the dialogue for things that are still happening today, in a sense making it easier because it’s set in the past, Davis replied:
“I hope. I mean, I think that once Obama became president there was a sigh of relief from people, thinking that racism is over. It’s like Hilary Clinton, if she were elected president would sexism be over? I mean, come on. We all know that whatever took three hundred and forty six years of doing is not going to be undone in fifty years. It’s just not. I hope that it opens dialogue with people. I think that people in general are, and I know I am – I’ll put myself in there – afraid of honest discourse. We always want to be in agreement with each other because we want to get along. Some serious things are happening in terms of classicism. The class structure in this country is so polarized. Racism. I mean, you really see it coming out with Obama being president, all of those things. You hope that it opens up a dialogue. You just hope, but what can you do. You can’t change people overnight.”
Songwriter Mary J. Blige felt a personal connection to the film in that her aunt had been a maid in the South at the same time as the film’s central characters. In addition to the link that Blige saw with her family’s history, the singer saw a tie to the issues even she, a megastar, faces today.
“It hit me really, really hard because we’re living in a time where things have changed, but they haven’t. I still go through things. As an African American woman it’s hard for me to get magazine covers because of my skin color. That’s what my publicist, what some of them have come back and told me. So, it hurt me to sit in that theater and still have to deal with that and it’s still going on there. The beautiful thing about Aibileen in that film is that they learn how to navigate and get around that system. The only way that you can get around that system is that you have to believe in yourself and what you have. You have to walk in love and try to forgive those people that want to put you in those terrible situations because that’s their issue. It’s not even a skin thing now. It’s just their issue.”
Bryce Dallas Howard plays the villain in the piece, a woman entrenched in the polluted beliefs of her time and her fore-bearers. When Howard was asked if she was aware of the history the actress responded that she was, but that working on the film acted as a catalyst for a greater understanding of the times we currently live in for her as well.
“Obviously from history books, from talking to people who lived through the civil rights movement, I knew it was really bad. But to actually play one of the bad guys, and to realize how much they thought they were right, was really scary. It was really, really scary because you think about stuff now — I’m privately a political person but not publicly one — and so often I’ll be like ‘What on EARTH is going on here? I mean what is the problem, what is the issue!?’ And after playing this character, realizing the people who are against certain civil rights things that we’re facing right now, actually think they’re right and that it’s best for the country or whatever they’re justifying is so scary because how can you argue with that? You just have to be stronger. You just have to win and that’s why, in the civil rights movement in the sixties, it got to the point where people were sacrificing their lives. Not just their well-being – people were dying because that was the only way for there to be change, and that was so scary.”
Whatever you take away from the film – whether it be an eye-opening perspective on the past or a gut-firing doorway into things that need looking at in the present, The Help is a film that hopes to open the path to conversation — mirroring the trajectory of the central characters in the film itself.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc