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Film’s controversy goes beyond black and white

Kirsteen Wolf
The Broadside

Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) in “The Help,” now on DVD. (Dreamworks Pictures)

If you have read the book “The Help”—even if you started off determined not to like it—you were most likely swept up by the compelling story. You were not alone. It spent two years on the best-seller list despite being rejected by publishers 60 times.
The movie is superbly cast with an excellent script and attention to detail that transports viewers to another time and place.
It also rehashed the debate brought on by the book. Does this movie do justice to the racism faced by African Americans in the early ‘60s and now? Or is this just another serving of the same kind of pie that Public Enemy raged against in their song “Burn Hollywood Burn?”
“And Black women in this profession. As for playin’ a lawyer, out of the question,” raps Big Daddy Kane in the song.
Viola Davis—who plays Aibileen, a maid in Jackson, Miss. who is asked to help write a book about her experiences working for white families—worked hard to make the character credible, active and tough. She did not want her performance sugarcoated.
“There is huge responsibility within the African American community. I mean huge,” said Davis in the LA Times. “There are entire blogs committed to saying that I’m a sellout just for playing a maid.”
When you watch “The Help” there are stories of rejection, challenge and love stacked on top of one another. The most devastating stories are the racist attitudes of the era. The suffering is unfathomable for many. If anything, the movie helps us to never forget.
We see other layers of the story illuminating the confines of other social roles: the smart, single (less attractive) woman; the uneducated, white outcast; the abused woman; the overweight, neglected child. There is suffering behind these definitions and boundaries. I don’t think these injustices are made to rival those of African Americans. The risks to resist these forces could never be compared.
There is power throughout the film. Through a combination of civic duty and outrage, the characters work together to tell a story that helps rock the foundations of an unjust society. It’s portrayed as a small victory but meaningful. On other stages, we know that people are fighting for what is right and losing their lives because of it. The characters in the story inspire us to fight for justice together against public and private confines.
Back to the controversy. There are stereotypes in the film as there are in most films. Are they hurtful? That’s for you to decide.

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