Past Help

Nostalgia for our recent past can be a complicated, addictive little bromide. As anyone surveying the post-Mad Men cultural landscape can attest, the radiant outfits and the sleek design are all the visual rage. Just as compelling is the dramatic irony that can be engendered by depictions of casual racism and other social ills - the sense of relief for at least some viewers that "things aren't like that any more."

The Help could go down just as smoothly. Based on Kathryn Stockett's fictional bestseller about two African-American maids and the white woman who helps publish their tell-all stories about their work in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, the film is a stylish little number, burnished to a high glow and draped in saturated color. Both book and film are dosed with the sugar required to make a racial-justice message palatable for mainstream audiences - a white heroine as the catalyst or conduit for social change, a white villain who is so despicable that viewers can congratulate themselves that they aren't nearly so racist. Despite these conventions, both also offer a rare examination into the messiness of interdependence and intimacy across categories of race and class, and expose the fruitlessness of the eternal, human pursuit of trying to reimagine what is real. "Separate but equal" was the mantra of the times - The Help demonstrates just why it was that many whites clung to that phrase: blacks and whites were deeply entangled and just as unequal.

So aren't we relieved that things are so much better now? We shouldn't be, because they aren't. While The Help may pitch itself as a peep into the past, as another Southerner, William Faulkner, has written, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." There are 2.5 million domestic workers in the States - the vast majority of whom are women of color, working without the federally recognized right to collectively bargain, organize, or receive overtime pay. Nor do they receive protection from most anti-discrimination or occupational safety laws. That was the situation during the time of The Help, and that is the situation now - an unresolved part of our bitter history with slavery.

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt began negotiations on labor reforms in 1937, ads began popping up in newspapers: "Housewives beware! If the Wages and Hours Bill goes through, you will have to pay your Negro girl eleven dollars a week." In order to pass what would become the New Deal, Roosevelt conceded to Southern Dixiecrat concerns over the scope of the reforms and cut domestic and agricultural workers out of the protections - two areas that were the province of house slaves and field slaves in the past, and the largely the province of poor blacks in the FDR era and poor immigrants and people of color now.

The Help has a modern-day update, however - the domestic-worker organizing by groups like Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Organizing these workers started around the kitchen tables and in parks where nannies take their charges to play, and advanced to the streets and State Senates. It led to the passage of the New York Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights last year, the first in the country. It set minimum wages, overtime pay and day of rest guarantees, along with insurance and anti-discrimination protections for harms suffered on the job - huge gains for the women whose labor of love has scarcely been recognized as work. There's an ongoing campaign to pass similar legislation in California, has with a bill in the state Senate appropriations committee. There's a worldwide effort as well, with the recent International Labour Organization adoption of a convention on domestic workers.

The Help makes bare mention of legal protections or politics. The scope of the movie is distinctly small-scale, the sort of intimate Sirkian world of "women's pictures." Protection from employer retaliation is coded in the potential to smear the boss's reputation amongst the bridge-circle set, and restorative justice is rendered as sweet, personal revenge. Both film and book draw on Manichean melodrama that is as squirm-inducing as it is effective - issues also reflected in criticism of the book as a white woman's (mis)appropriation of black women's unheard voices. Stockett, a white writer, uses dialect to write her black characters' narratives and thoughts and her book, she explains in her afterword, is an attempt to answer the question never asked of the beloved black maid, Demetrie, who raised her: What is your life like? With this, her white-writer heroine seems a stand-in for herself, and The Help a form of genuine, empathetic penance turned profitable.

And yet, these issues didn't diminish the emotional impact of Stockett's work or of the film. Those obvious machinations and broad characterizations somehow pack quite a wallop, and The Help will punch you in the face with them until you cry. I did not care that back-talking Minny (the ferociously funny Octavia Spencer) was just one finger-wag away from a sassy-sidekick cliche, or that Aibileen (Viola Davis, in a deeply felt, beautifully modulated performance) seemed like she had climbed down from the cross and put on a maid's apron, or even that Miss Celia (the girlishly radiant Jessica Chastain) was wish-fulfillment made flesh - a Marilyn Monroe-esque giggly wriggler who doesn't have a racist thought in her bottle-blonde head.

Nor did it matter that the film upped the book's scatology quotient by dwelling at length in the first half with a campaign to pass legislation mandating the use of separate bathrooms in white homes employing black help, and in the second with a particularly nasty (but amply earned) bit of revenge. That obsession with filth seemed like a clumsy, overly literal way to grapple with something quite difficult to depict. The women of The Help, like domestic workers today, do work that is absolutely vital but is rendered so invisible by those who have been nurtured by it. How is it that many of the little white children so loved by their black maids, grow up to ignore, exclude, and oppress them? The Help poses the question but doesn't venture an answer, which lies, if one were to wax psychological, in the murk of trying to avoid the vulnerability engendered in needing another's care, in living in a body, frail in youth, failing in age, that may require it. The Help's more racist characters cling to the illusion that money or a sense of ownership or power could erase this dependency, or that one can flee or project on to others the existential, metaphorical and physical filth that is already in all of us. But as The Help testifies, we are all mixed up together, for better or worse, and there is no escape from our shared destiny, or from the complicated love and need that can develop despite what is seen as dividing us.

All this, Minny might say, is crazy talk. The Help doesn't delve much into the political or philosophical, even as it flirts with it. As Minny says in the film, "We're not doing civil rights, we're just telling stories like they really happened," before she and Aibileen burst into laughter, recognizing just how subversive their stories can be. The Help is in thrall to the ways in which oral histories can become history - but, of course, it is starting only at the beginning of that process. It doesn't trace the ways telling stories around the kitchen table can lead to a movement, and while the film is clear on the risk the trio is taking to publish their stories, the dynamism of the era's organizing and the brutal violence it faced are merely feinted at in shots of newspaper headlines and TV footage of the attacks on the Freedom Rides, and the assassination of Medgar Evers. The great feature film about the workings of the civil-rights movement or about current organizing has yet to be made. Fortunately, in the parks over baby carriages, in the rallies on the streets, in the lobbying at state senates, the sequel to The Help's stories is unfolding -- a potential path to lead us out of the problems of the past, and present.

Many thanks to Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Priscilla Gonzalez of Domestic Workers United for sharing their thoughts and expertise.

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