With countless books and movies sexualizing women and depicting graphic violence, why are so many people focusing their energies on firing away at The Help? The story takes place in 1960's Mississippi, where an idealistic young woman bands together with the maids to reveal how they're really being treated by the Southern belle bosses who happen to be her friends.
Critics say The Help once again glorifies -- and I'm quoting a number of essays almost verbatim here - "a heroic white woman who comes along to help the poor black people who can't help themselves." They claim that the maid role is demeaning but pretty much the only one available for Hollywood's African-American actresses.
They may be right on both those counts but I think they're missing the big picture. The Help is, above all, about the importance of women sharing their stories with each other. Yes, Skeeter is able to give a voice to the maids -- but they also give her one. They help her land the job of her dreams and empower her to leave the stifling South to pursue her passion. And although bubbly blond Celia hires Minny when no one else will and encourages her to leave her abusive husband, Minny also teaches Celia skills she sorely needs, giving her the confidence to face some hard truths. Not one of these women -- white or black -- could have achieved what they did without the help of the others.
Oh, it's just like The Blind Side, the critics sneer, where rich, white Sandra Bullock takes in a poor, young, black boy and enables him to become a star football player. Well, guess what? Leigh Anne Tuohy really did do that -- and good for her. Shouldn't she be applauded for giving Michael Oher the opportunity to excel? Who cares that she's white and he's black? Don't we want people who have the means to help those who don't?
I went to a screening the other night of Stories From an Undeclared War, a powerful new documentary about the Freedom Writers. If you don't know the story, in the mid-1990's, teacher Erin Gruwell completely transformed the lives of 150 at-risk youths from Long Beach, California, by believing in them, opening up the world of literature for them and giving them a safe haven to express themselves through journaling. She stayed with the same students throughout all four years of high school, and every single one of them graduated.
Should we look scornfully upon her because she's white and her students were predominantly African-American, Hispanic and Asian? Many did when the fictionalized movie about her came out with Hilary Swank as Erin. Why? Because she's white? Is To Sir, With Love more acceptable because Sidney Poitier is a black teacher changing the lives of at-risk white students? Erin is a hero not because of her color but because, well, first of all, she's real. The woman took her considerable talents and her gigantic heart, and she worked her ass off to literally save a group of kids who worried about being killed every time they left home -- some of them even in their homes.
There are plenty of African-Americans who are changing lives and making a difference every day. There's probably no one -- black or white -- more philanthropic than Oprah. I'm not talking about giving away cars or iPads. I'm talking about providing educations, creating foundations, building a leadership academy, and helping individuals -- black and white -- who are sick, who can't pay their bills. Do we need more movies made about rich black people helping poor white people? Sure! But that doesn't mean we should stop making movies like The Help or The Blind Side. We need more movies about people helping people, period.
I'm not African-American so I recognize there may be other sensitivities of which I'm not aware. I am Jewish, though, and I can tell you that I am grateful beyond words when Oskar Schindler saves a thousand Jews in Schindler's List -- even though he's German. You can make a million Holocaust movies, real or fictionalized, and I'll appreciate every time a German helps a Jew.
The point is we need to help each other, and we need to keep encouraging people to do so. Dismissing someone's efforts as too easy -- "oh, she's rich," "well, he has the connections" -- is unfair and counterproductive.
Let's listen to each other and be each other's biggest support system. Ultimately, that's what helping -- and The Help -- is all about.
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