Why “The Help” Still Resonates

by: Alexandra Le Tellier

Note: This piece was originally posted on the author’s website and was reposted with permission. You can find the original here.

I cried during the entire second half of The Help.  True, it’s not the deepest story about the Civil Rights movement. But it is a story about breaking down the walls of segregation in 1960s Mississippi and, though it’s told through the lens of friendship and empowerment, there are heartbreaking moments that hurt to watch.

Some critics and activists have taken the film to task, as Gary Susman points out in a brilliant post, saying it puts the mammy stereotype back in the spotlight and gives too much credit to the “white savior.” Others have criticized The Help for taking a light(er)hearted approach to the harrowing struggles of black people.

I didn’t see it that way. For one thing, a stereotypical mammy wouldn’t have served her former white boss a chocolate-shit pie. For another, it’s the movie’s charm and humor that draw in the audience and create that emotional connection. I really love the way LA Times film critic Betsy Sharkey put it in her review:

While a lot of the action happens over stoves, it’s the toilets that become the moral proving ground — and deliver some of the movie’s funniest moments. That The Help can take the incendiary issue of “separate-but-equal” bathrooms and spin it into a series of side-splitting gags without losing sight of the underlying pain of discrimination, represents a kind of comedy I thought Hollywood had forgotten how to do. You know, the kind that makes us laugh while going right to the heart of the matter, and comes as a blessed relief from the vapid raunch that has become the norm.

What upset me about The Help had less to do with the film itself than how the audience might interpret the inspirational ending. Because the truth is, discrimination isn’t a thing of the past, nor is it a black-and-white issue. Not when you have a state like Alabama trying to enforce an immigration law that recalls the Jim Crow era.

Like the New York Times wrote:

You’d think that any state would think twice before embracing a law that so vividly brings to mind the Fugitive Slave Act, the brutal legal and aw-enforcement apparatus of the Jim Crow era, and the civil-rights struggle led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But waves of anti-immigrant hostility have made many in this country forget who and what we are.

And the Washington Post:

You’d think that Alabama, crucible of the civil rights movement, would be wary of enacting legislation whose effect is to marginalize, ostracize and demonize people based on their ethnic or racial origin. […] that’s exactly what is likely to happen starting next Thursday when the state’s poisonous law targeting illegal immigrants takes effect.

The law’s been blocked for now, but sadly it’s only a temporary decision.

Alexandra Le Tellier is a thirtysomething multimedia journalist with a fondness for yentas, debate and cultural commentary.  Le Tellier an editor, production manager, web content developer, writer, reporter and blogger with a voracious appetite for media, news, cultural trends, entertainment and getting the scoop before the competition. Alexandra has worked at the Los Angeles Times, Metromix and LA.com and have freelanced for publications including Variety and Los Angeles Magazine. Le Tellier is currently the Senior Web Producer for the Opinion Pages at the Los Angeles Times.

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