Some memorable audience reactions surfaced after the August opening of “The Help,” a film that explored some of the complex relationships between black and white women in Jackson, Miss., during segregation in the early 1960s.
I sat inside a packed movie theater sandwiched between my mother and two white women, wondering if the movie’s subject matter would be too racially disturbing and uncomfortable to watch for this integrated audience.
My apprehensions diminished after the lights dimmed and people responded to the film’s two-hour plus storyline with tears, gut-shaking laughter and sometimes expressions of sadness and anger.
“I heard back home in Mississippi there were standing ovations at the end (of the movie.) In my small group, there definitely wasn’t a dry eye,” said Catherine Lucas, a Baton Rouge educator.
“The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett, is about a young journalist, Skeeter, and her relationships with two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, in the early 1960s.
Skeeter’s interviews with the maids reveal the racism the women are exposed to while working. The maids initially are afraid to talk for fear of losing their jobs or something worse. They later change their minds and open up about their working conditions, their personal lives and living under Jim Crow laws.
The movie’s theme and its well-portrayed characters kept viewers on an emotional roller-coaster ride.
“I started crying at the Medgar Evers assassination (scene) and didn’t stop until the film was over. But the way these women cared for one another really left me with a feeling of warmth and hope that even with our trials still today, that some genuine relationships can form across racial and socio-economic boundaries,” Lucas said.
In one scene, a black maid is arrested at the bus stop for stealing jewelry and attempts to get her purse but is clubbed by a white policeman. Two women sitting beside me gasped and covered their mouths.
In other scenes, maids described working conditions in homes where they often were subjected to verbal abuse. The maids weren’t allowed to use in-house bathrooms, but instead were sent to outhouses. In one scene, Aibileen heads out to the family’s hot, smelly outdoor toilet, not much of a reward for her role in cleaning the family’s home and taking care of the their daughter.
Baton Rouge educator Shalonda Simoneaux said the movie’s message was memorable.
“The movie made me feel good about the strength of both black and white women in the South. The themes of racial, feminist, political, social, and personal family/domestic obstacles that faced women of all races in the South were brought about in this movie,” she said. “I particularly enjoyed the courage of the black maid who must raise her child and someone else’s child, instilling morals and love in both, having every reason and justification to hate, but instead planting seeds of love.”
The film also explored the emotional connection between white children and the black maids who raised them.
“I do think that the movie gave a glimpse of what the relationships were like during segregation. It is impossible for women to be this connected every day and not affect each other’s lives in a major way.”
Chante Dionne Warren is a former Advocate reporter who is now a freelance writer. She can be reached at chante writer @hotmail.com