The American History in Film Project, "The Help"

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The American History in Film Project, "The Help"

film help segregation discrimination

The movie represents the American history of the 1960-s and concerns two major problems of that period: racial segregation and gender discrimination.

The dominant issue the movie is based upon is racial discrimination and segregation of blacks. The 1960-s were characterized by the active Civil rights movement, when more and more people began to fight against racial inequality and segregation, legislated by the Jim Crow laws.

The movie depicts the life in Mississippi — one of the states where the level of racial discrimination and violence had always been extremely high. Black women had no choice of work, because they were meant to be maids, owned by white families. One of the main characters, Aibileen, had always known she would be a maid, because her mother had been a maid and her grandmother had been a house slave. She accepted it as a normal, because it had been a social standard for generations; and those black women didn’t consider any possibility of a change, because it would mean a rebellion. At first they were scared to rise against the social order. Some people, who did it, lost their jobs, and both Aibileen and Minny faced it; some were shot: Medgar Evers, a prominent figure of the Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated by Ku Klux Klan; some lost their families. It required tremendous courage to risk your job, your family and your life. So for Aibileen and Minny it was a challenge to write the book with Skeeter, as it was against the law, as they said. On the other hand, it seemed even scarier to them to leave their life as it was, because such a life was horrible and someone had to change it. They finally braced themselves and agreed to help Skeeter, as they were inspired and given an example by such heroes as Medgar Evers and players of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, who are mentioned in the movie; and it was time when Aibileen and Minny were offered a real chance to improve the life of their fellows.

So, at first Aibileen finds the idea of telling her story completely insane and tries to dissuade Eugenia from writing the book saying that «Nobody is gonna tell you… It’s the hell of a risk in a place like Jackson». Minny’s reaction is not much different. When they began to work with Skeeter, they still doubted if it was the right thing to do. But throughout the plot their decisiveness grows. First of all, they saw more and more horrible things happening around. The television and the press were announcing more and more information about harassment and abuse of blacks. Secondly, they realized they were tired of segregation themselves. Separate buses, separate dining tables, separate bathrooms outside of the house — maids tolerated all of it. However, when Minny was denied in using the «white» bathroom during a terrible storm and was fired for using it, it seemed too much for her. Besides, one of the most important reasons which prompted Aibileen to write the book was the Bible, and as we know, religion has always been important for Americans. When Skeeter asks Aibileen what changed her mind, her response was «God»; and we will return to the issue of Christianity in «The Help» later.

Along with the black maids, the movie shows us the life of «white» society of the 60-s as accurate as possible.

The central, core part of this society is occupied by people (in this case we see only women), who are staunch advocates of the old tradition of discrimination and segregation. Most of the movie we see these women together, whether they have a party or just gather in the Hilly’s house to discuss the relationships or their maids. Hilly has a say in every issue, because she is the President of the Junior League of Jackson. She abuses her power, as she imposes her own opinion on everybody. Sometimes it seemed to me that her friends were not so mean and heartless as she was, but they were too weak and afraid to oppose her and express their own opinion on the issues. For example, when at the end of the movie Aibileen, Elizabeth’s maid, was slandered, it was Hilly who showed her the door. Elizabeth was not so decisive, but at Hilly’s insistence she had to fire the maid. These women could not resist Hilly’s power, because saying something that diverged from Hilly’s point of view would basically put them in a position against Hilly and the society, and nobody wanted it. They considered it awful to be like Celia Foote, a social misfit; or like Eugenia Skeeter, who did not have a husband and had to work. Everybody preferred though a dependent, but comfortable and stable life. Throughout the movie Hilly and the people of her «breed» do not change, representing an example of purely negative characters.

However, in the movie there are instances when a person had to yield to the society, but afterwards realized he was wrong. This is the situation with Charlotte Phelon and her maid, whom she had to fire to keep up appearances with the other women. But by the end of the movie we see the improvement in her character: she defends Skeeter by showing deep disrespect towards Hilly and with it — the standards of society.

Another character, who, on the one hand, follows the norms of the society, but on the other hand, opposes them, is Celia Foote. She does not go against the tradition of having maids, but she treats them like friends, she respects them for their qualities and skills and sometimes even downgrades her own position to make a compliment and show respect for her newly found maid Minny. She eats at Minny’s table with her; she asks her for advice and for help; she is grateful for what Minny is doing for her. She even hugs her, when Minny agrees to work for her.

As for Eugenia — this is an example of a purely positive character, who not only treats maids with respect, but helps them, tries to change their lives, fighting for their «inalienable» human rights. She is strongly emotionally attached to Constantine, the maid who had raised her; and Constantine, in her turn, had always loved the girl.

Thus, we see the complexity of the relationships of blacks and whites of that time, because these relations were not always full of mistrust, hate and abuse — there was also love, attachment and care present.

In my opinion, hatred and disgust that maids could feel towards their owners is evident. No one would like to be deprived of his basic rights and be abused by immoral heartless people like, for example, Hilly. I can hardly imagine the feelings of black people who were considered second-class people without any reason, but were so oppressed and scared by the society that they could not dare change anything.

The hatred that white women could feel towards black ones can be, first, simply explained by their disgust towards blacks; and, second, by their subconscious jealousy towards them, because those white women lacked the qualities that black women possessed — ability to love truly and unconditionally; courage; integrity. For example, maids raised white children, treating and loving them like their own. The relationships of Constantine and Eugenia, Aibileen and Elizabeth’s child prove it. Of course, children were attached to the maids who replaced their mothers. Seeing this, careless mothers felt jealous and began treating the maids even worse.

The way blacks and whites interpreted the Bible in the movie also reveals the true nature of both of them. Aibileen heard in God’s words an inspiration to help her fellows; it gave her courage to risk everything she had. However, there was an instance, when the words of the Bible were twisted in a way that basically denied the whole morality of help, compassion. When Hilly was asked for a loan by her maid Yule May Crookle, she answered: «As a Christian — I’m doing you a favor. God doesn’t give charity to those who are well and able. You need to come up with this money on your own. Okay? You’ll thank me one day.» First of all, Yule was not asking for charity — she was ready to work for this money. Second, wasn’t it exactly the way for her to come up with money on her own? Third, even if God does not give charity to those who are well and able, it does not mean you shouldn’t do it either, moreover when you have an opportunity to help a person, who is not really well and able.

However, not all the relationships were negative, as I have said, as there were white people who were kind and attentive to their maids and whites who fought for the rights of blacks.

The other issue the whole movie is based upon is gender discrimination and feminism.

In general, in the 1960s the «white» society of America was still quite patriarchal and androcentric and the movie «The Help» shows it very vividly. Men worked, women stayed at home and gave birth to children. Such women spent most of their time gossiping. In spite of the fact that they had maids, skills of housekeeping were very appreciated by men and it was still considered to be a standard kind of occupation for a woman. For example, Celia asked Minny to teach her some techniques of cooking, because she wanted her husband to know she could do it on her own.

The «Hilly's» society possesses many traditionally feminine characteristics: they gossip about each other, jealousy and pretence dominate in their relationships. For instance, Hilly apparently envied Celia, because she lacked the qualities Celia had: beauty, charm, kindness, sincerity and compassion. Everybody knew Hilly hated Celia, because Hilly’s rich ex-boyfriend Johnny married Celia. When one of Hilly’s friends reminded her that she could have been Johnny’s wife, she pretended that it didn’t touch her, saying: «And live 30 minutes outside of town? No, thank you». But her facial expression and actions towards Celia spoke of the different: she would give up everything to be Johnny’s wife and get his money. Stuart Whitworth, whom Skeeter dated, once uttered a phrase, which very precisely described the women of «Hilly's» society: «Girls major in professional husband hunting». This thought can also be illustrated by the behavior of Eugenia’s mother: almost throughout the whole movie she was trying to arrange Skeeter’s private life, completely ignoring her desire to have a career first, not a husband. So, Stuart’s phrase can be applied to the majority of the white women, as we see it in the movie.

As for the «black» society — it was characterized by gender discrimination: from the movie we learn that Minny is abused by her husband Leroy, because he was fired after what Minny had done to Hilly. Also he made their daughter quit the school to help him pay the bills. So, obviously, he was dominating in the family, in spite of the fact that Minny seemed to be strong both emotionally and physically.

However, right in the 1960s there emerged a second upsurge of feminism and we can see some influence of it on the «white» society. Women begin participating in the social life, for example Hilly promotes new projects concerning segregation. They drive cars and smoke, which had always been men’s characteristics.

The character of Celia Foote is at the same time purely feminine, as I have already said, but at some moments she strikes with her masculinity. Without any confusion or hesitation she kills a cock for diner by herself. Even for Minny, who was not that soft and delicate, it was not so easy to look at that scene. Besides, Celia, after several miscarriages, had to bury her children by herself, concealing it from everybody. It is very unusual even nowadays for a woman to bear something on her own, without sharing her emotions and feelings with anyone.

However, it is the character of Eugenia Skeeter who represents an embodiment of all the characteristics of a feminist.

Each action of Skeeter shows her as a non-conformist in everything.

First of all, she is not striving for having a rich husband and giving birth to children. She wants to be a professional journalist or writer. But nobody understands her ambitions — moreover, nobody even pays attention to them. For example, when she shared the news of her getting a job with her mother, Hilly and her friends, nobody showed any interest in it and all of them unanimously started talking about men and marriage. They did not consider having a career a serious thing; finding a wealthy man for Eugenia — that was purpose number one. It is interesting that even if Skeeter was not striving for a marriage, she was not against dating someone. The matter was that she was too strong, independent and straight-forward to find a man who would appreciate these qualities in that patriarchal society. The reaction of Stuart on her behavior was different throughout the movie. At first, he was surprised to face a woman who was not interested in the «professional husband hunting» and who could put him down for his insulting words. Then he got interested in her, because he «had never met a woman saying exactly what she was thinking». By these words he actually means that other women were pretentious and cunning, while Eugenia was honest and often even blunt, which made her different from others. But by the end of the movie he was tired of her character, because he was not used to being with a woman who would not obey and admire him, that’s why he calls her «selfish».

The fact that she decided to write a book with the stories of the help, also shows her as a person who swam against the stream, and it required courage and ability to be an independent individuality, a free-thinker. These characteristics were also peculiar mostly to men, as the women of the 1960s were dependent on men and kept themselves from expressing their own opinion.

One more traditionally masculine feature that both Skeeter and the black women possessed was a sense of humor. When Skeeter’s mother put on a wig and asked: «Is it a little too young?» Skeeter answered: «It's a little too everything». Aibileen — to the question of a child why she was black — answered: «Because I drink too much coffee». Hilly and her friends could not boast of a sense of humor — as «good» women they were supposed to listen to their men joking and admire this ability.

We can see some other issues important for Americans which were touched upon in the movie, for example, the issue of homosexuality. In the 1960s the LGBT movement only began to make progress and homosexuality was yet just a subculture. When Skeeter’s mother said to Eugenia: «Recently I’ve read some girls begin to get unbalanced, have some unnatural thought. Do you… find men attractive? Are you having unnatural thoughts about girls and women?» Skeeter found her words completely crazy. Their conversation proves that at that time homosexuality was still considered abnormal. I think that this attitude is similar to what we now have in Russia — most of Russians still do not welcome it.

To sum it up, the movie «The help» mostly concerns the problems of discrimination against the rights of minorities, which have always been acute in the USA. The fact that discrimination of minorities, especially African-Americans, had been taking place in America for centuries, has always seemed strange to me, because one of the basic American values is freedom, and discrimination basically means limiting someone’s freedom. Moreover, discrimination of African Americans did not have any solid grounds, it was inherently unfair, but it was a standard, at least in the South. And those people, who dared fight against it, risked everything, including their lives. So, in the movie we see quite an accurate picture of the 1960-s: a conservative, traditional background and a few bright individuals in the forefront who were changing the tradition and building a new history with new standards which would protect the inalienable human rights of every person.

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