Saturday, September 03, 2011

Is "The Help" A Modern Tale on Materialism?

So says, Elijah Davidson:

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s serves as the backcloth for The Help, but I did not walk out of the theater with a renewed commitment to racial equality. I left deeply appreciative of women and deeply disturbed by how women are affected by our materialistic culture. To reiterate, The Help, I contend, is not about racism. It's not about sexism either. I saw in The Help a depiction of the destructive power of materialism.

The Help's villain is Hilly Holbrook, a racist, vindictive woman portrayed with vicious glee by Bryce Dallas Howard. Hilly reigns supreme at the apex of Jackson's social pyramid. She is the one lobbying for mandatory separate restrooms for blacks and whites. She is the one who excludes other white women who she feels don't belong in proper society. She is the one whose comeuppance symbolizes victory for the maltreated and misused. The audience is supposed to hate Hilly and all for which she stands.

It worked. For the first hour and forty-five minutes of the film, I hated her with passion. Then I realized the sadness and desperation of her own life. Hilly does not sit enthroned atop a gleaming pyramid. She reigns over a travesty. This is a truth not lost on the filmmakers themselves, as they make clear in Hilly's final confrontation with Aibileen.

Hilly is so desperate to keep everyone else down because all she has is her little self-created kingdom of social standing and wealth. Everything she does is an attempt to shore up the walls of this kingdom. She organizes "coat drives" to remind herself that she is not poor. Her women's committee lies to itself about making "a big dent" in African hunger. Her crusade against the housekeepers is born out of guilt that she is incapable of keeping her house on her own. She must denigrate the black women around her because they are ever present reminders of her own inadequacy and the weakness of her way of life.

Appearances are everything to Hilly and her covey of similarly self-interested wealthy, white women, because appearances are all they really have. The shocking revelation contained in the housekeepers' book isn't that racism runs rampant in Jackson society. It's that Jackson society is a sham.

The white women in Jackson are nothing without their housekeepers. They cannot cook. They cannot clean. They cannot take care of their children. More so, even with those responsibilities shoved off on their housekeepers, The Help demonstrates that the women cannot maintain their way of life, the deeper irony being that the oppressors (the white women) are themselves oppressed by the culture of Materialism.
 I will agree with Elijah that there is something in the movie about serving the gods of materialism, but I still think The Help is a story about racism.  Thankfully, the racism depicted in the film is now more a piece of history than it is the day to day life of black folks.  But in the end, this is story about America's recent past which had some racist bits.

It's also the lived history of a lot of living African Americans like my father, who grew up in Jim Crow Louisiana.  I remember recently hearing one of my older cousins who was born in Louisiana in the late 40s talk about his experience receiving care in charity hospital in Central Louisiana and let's just say the care wasn't top notch.

I'm not saying that materialism is a part of the story in the movie.  But this movie is about racism and how it affects the people in that situation.  I think that needs to be acknowledged and not downplayed.

There is one thing I totally agree with this take on The Help.  It's one of the final scenes that seems to me reminiscent of communion:

The scenes I found most poignant, though, were a scene in which Aibileen's friend and co-conspirator Minnie is presented with a feast by her employers and an immediately following scene in which Aibileen's church community applauds her and the risk she has taken to tell her story. I was struck then with the conviction that all women deserve a feast, and all women deserve applause for what they have done both to sustain us and to set us free.
Minnie ends up working for a white woman who is a bit of mess.  She can't cook and is shunned by the other women in Jackson.  The relationship that develops between the two outcasts is wonderful and the closing scene is one where the woman learns to cook and she makes a massive feast for Minnie.  The scene shows a white woman and a black woman sitting down together to eat a wonderful meal.  If that isn't a demonstration of what communion is all about, I don't know what is.

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