Jenice Armstrong: Film helps to tell a story that's seldom heard

Viola Davis plays Aibileen, one of several black maids working for rich white families in "The Help."
Viola Davis plays Aibileen, one of several black maids working for rich white families in "The Help."
Posted: August 17, 2011

LIKE A LOT of black folks, I come from a long line of women who were the help.

When she wasn't cleaning the homes of white families in North Carolina, my late grandmother took in laundry and sold Winston-Salem Life Insurance. Her earnings helped put four children through college.

My mother also worked as a maid, ironing clothes and cleaning the homes of white families during summers off from what was then called North Carolina College. When I asked my mother, a retired school librarian, if she wanted to go with me to see "The Help," she was quick to say no. "Why would I want to relive that? I feel so fortunate to have escaped."

The era depicted by "The Help" was truly an awful time for blacks, which is one reason why the film has stirred up so much passion and indignation. The idea that a white author, Kathryn Stockett, is telling the story of black female servants in her best-selling book is one thing that has some critics all worked up, particularly the Association of Black Women Historians, which has complained that not enough attention was paid in the novel to the issue of sexual harassment of domestic workers. Then, there are fears that the film, which was No. 2 at the box office over the weekend, bringing in $26 million, resurrects old, down-home mammy images. We may have a black first lady in the White House, but that's still a touchy issue. On a Facebook "Boycott The Help" page, someone referred to the film as 2011's version of "Gone with the Wind."

I think people need to chill or at least see the movie first.

It's not that bad.

There were parts of it that I actually enjoyed. I arrived at the theater with raised eyebrows because of all the merchandising tie-ins for a film about black maids circa 1960. I mean, really? A candle that makes you nostalgic for segregation? That's not the kind of thing I want to remember when I'm in the mood to light candles. Same thing with those "The Help"-inspired pots and pans.

But then the movie started. Many of the scenes on the big screen were of things that I've heard relatives talk about over the years - how so many black mothers left their own children behind to care for those of their white employers; bone-weary maids boarding the backs of buses for long rides home; being disrespected and unable to stand up for themselves.

At one point, I struggled not to cry.

I was touched because I felt that I was witnessing a swath of life that largely went ignored back then and has been all but relegated to the dustbin of history. But how many of our lives would have been completely different had it not been for all those black women who were willing to do what they had to do, so the rest of us could even get here?

Still, I couldn't help but wish someone could find a better role for the great Cicely Tyson than playing another bent-over, downtrodden character. That aside, in true Tyson fashion, she plays the heck out of Constantine, the longtime family maid who trembles pitifully as she serves peas and pearl onions to members of the Daughters of the American Revolution before being abruptly fired.

And some of the dialogue was less than authentic. I cringed each time Aibileen, played by Viola Davis, told the little girl she cares for, "You is smart. You is kind. You is important."

Dialogue aside, Nickki Johnson-Huston, 36, who paid her way through college and law school by serving as the help for several Main Line families, said the movie made her reflect on her relatives who worked as domestics and her own time spent as a nanny.

"If it wasn't for those women, I wouldn't be here. They made me feel good. They worked hard and took care of their families, and there's honor in that. They had dignity," Johnson told me.

"It made me feel so fortunate because back in their time, my story would not have been possible," said Johnson-Huston, who now works as an attorney for the city.

And that's really the lesson here. This movie, albeit clumsily, tells a story that never has been told in a big way, which is why it's worth seeing.


Send email to heyjen@phillynews.com. My blog: www.philly.com/HeyJen.

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