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August 19, 2011

“The Help”

Roy Meachum

The summer’s best-selling hardcover and paperback book was transformed into a hit movie comes right out of the culture that produced me; the segregated South was dominated by women, a matriarchy that ruled a male-fronted culture – frequently in government and commerce, as well as personally. That’s how it was when I was growing up.


In “The Help,” Kathryn Stockett created a three dimensioned society with men generally out of sight, “ladies” were left free to run the most important aspects; they generally delegated the domestic decisions, work and future generations to black “maids.” My situation was different.


The ex-slave who raised me was Uncle William; the government emancipated him, but his daily life relied absolutely on Aunt Kate who ran the boarding house that was my home for years in New Orleans. Their arrangement pre-dated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Social Security. At eight, I received an SS card because I sold Saturday Evening Posts from a specially imprinted bag.


In my high school fraternity I frequently visited Mississippi where the real-life “Help” worked; the system relied absolutely on segregation that treated the “domestics” inhumanely generally. The good employers were few and scattered; Aunt Kate belonged to that minority. My otherwise busy mother left my raising to the boarding house owner who, in turn, delegated my care to the former slave. The bulk of my early childhood memories mostly revolve around Uncle William.


There was a crisp Mardi Gras when the former slave wrapped quilts around my flimsy rayon pirate’s costume and deposited me in a rocker on the narrow front gallerie. He was simply the most important person in my life; he helped me transform from a child into a boy by helping me change from cotton shorts into corduroy knickers; he approved my costume for entry in McDonough 10 Grammar School. When a mosquito gifted me with malaria in the first grade, the former slave accepted the responsibility of spooning into my mouth ice cream that was the only prescribed nourishment for several days.


Similar highpoints are reflected in “The Help.” But the kissers of bruised knees and elbows are female “maids” – as they’re called in Jackson, Mississippi, at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Segregation enthusiasts and supporters heard the tomb winds rattling when integration threatened their comfortable life style. This was the era of ghastly beatings and burnings, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Out-of-state workers, as well as “locals,” were massacred by the Ku Klux Klan. “Segs” made the times darkest in my native South before the promised dawn when all men, women and children were legally deemed “equal.” Of course, bigotry remains, as I’ve written before.


Ms. Stockett’s demonstrated genius amazed me, despite my intimate knowledge of the system. With fantastic assistance from people and resources, as she amply acknowledges, she summons up details and motivations of the people at that time. Her leading protagonists are Abileen and Minny, African American “helpers” who are the chief figures in both the book and film. Skeeter, the name the author gives herself, plays second-fiddle in the stories of more than several maids.


People who read the book should be assured the movie is faithful to the manuscript; in switching media editing is a necessity. Director-screenwriter Tate Taylor knew the story intimately; she was author Stockett’s childhood friend, and it shows in the nitty-picky curlicues and more important details.


I consider the listing of cast to be racist. Emma Stone’s Skeeter should be nominated for Best Supporting Actress at next year’s Oscar ceremony, along with Octavia Spencer who breathes and rages Minny to life. By all that’s right and holy, walking with the golden statuette must be Viola Davis, the real star of “The Help.”


This is the finest film I’ve seen for years, maybe the best of my long life. You will enjoy the book, as I did.


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