Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Help

There's been a lot of controversy surrounding the movie "The Help." I guess this doesn't surprise me since the book tells a story about racism, which is a very heated topic (for good reason). In case you don't know, the book is about African American maids who work for Caucasian families in 1960's in Jackson, Mississippi. It's pretty eye opening to people of my generation, who didn't live through the civil rights movement and haven't experienced such blatant racism (though I can't speak for everyone when I say that). It's surprising to think that that sort of treatment was allowed such a short time ago.

I have to be real though. I'm white, and therefore, more naive than I like to admit about racism. I am aware of racism to a certain extent. I actively disapprove of anything that seems racist around me, and try to make sure I have no prejudices in me. But I'm still naive and don't really know what it's like to be discriminated against for my race.

And because I'm white, I feel self conscious even talking about racism, for fear of saying the wrong thing. And for fear of being told I'm talking about something I know nothing about. Which I suppose wouldn't be wrong.

But back to The Help.

I read the book the movie was based on a year ago. I had heard what it was about and was very curious.  So curious in fact, that I bought the book in its hard cover form, which you know is not cheap. When flipping through it in the book store, I first opened to the back cover and was quite surprised, and I can't lie, disappointed, to see that the author was white. I felt self conscious right away, that one of "my own" was trying to lay claim on a story about someone else's experience and tell a story about racism. My discomfort grew when I read that she herself had an African American maid as a child. Then to top it off, when I started the book and saw the vernacular she used, I was down right squirmy with discomfort.

But I had heard good things about it, so I decided to read it anyway. It was a very well written and interesting book. It introduced me to a world and experience I knew nothing about. It gave me a new look at the civil rights movement. The characters were vibrant and complex. There were points in the book that I thought were weaker than others, but overall I loved the book and recommended it to my friends.

Of course, I had to see the movie. Here's my advice to those of you who want to see it: bring a box of tissues. I was near tears the whole time. The story came to life in the movie. Were parts of the story changed, and parts left out? Duh. Of course they were. A movie can never be the same as a book. That's not what movies even try to do and they shouldn't, or every movie based on a book would be a mini series.

I loved the movie. I thought it was a great representation of the book. It showed complexities of the characters well. It made me laugh and for sure made me cry. I give it ten tissues out of ten on the crying scale. But I also give it a whole bunch of stars for just being really good.

I've had many interesting conversations with friends who've read the book and seen the movie. And providing a catalyst for these types of conversations is one of the best things The Help has to offer. Am I uncomfortable that a white women wrote the book? Not as much as I was at first. Hardly at all. But is it racist of me to feel at all uncomfortable with it? I don't even know. Is it bad that one of the main characters, the one who gives a voice to the maids, is white? I'm not sure. But I don't think so. That's a complex issue and I'm going to have to think about it more. See the movie or read the book and tell me what you think.

I think that many people in my generation think we live in a post-racism era, especially since we have a black president. But even though things are better, racism is still a reality. Even I know that. And if we don't talk about it, how will we identify it - both in others, and in ourselves? We live in an "is it ok to say that?" era now - nervous to say anything that may seem racist. If we can't talk about something, we can't change it. And that's the best thing about The Help. It brings racism back into our daily conversations, and that can't be a bad thing.