I read "The Help" when it was first published a couple of years ago. For those who don’t know, the book is a pre-Civil Rights story about white southerners in the heart of the South and their black maids (one of whom exacts a wonderful revenge for her mistreatment).
After I finished the book, we took one of our frequent trips to San Antonio. I took the dust jacket along so I could show to my friends at the Reading Club I had belonged to there and urge them to read it, but when I arrived at the meeting, ready to make the recommendation, I found that everyone there was ALREADY eagerly reading it.
Texas was not as exploitative of black women as Mississippi (where the book and movie are set) was, but I think that women of color who worked as cleaners, cooks and nannies at that time were always overworked and underpaid. It took heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. to give them their "voice."
One thing I really do wish is that there were more Southern film critics writing for newspapers and magazines. In the film reviews I’ve read, the critics seem appalled by the scenes between blacks and whites in the film in which the two groups are not totally antagonistic to one another–They can’t seem to understand how two such disparate groups of people could be both friends AND enemies. But there was plenty of love in those relationships.
The film shows black "mammies" comforting their charges, and bringing them up better than their own mothers did. This happened to Whitley: He loved the black woman who cared for him as a child very much and they were together all day so they knew each other well.
The book (and movie) tells about how a wealthy white woman gets her comeuppance after engineering a neighborhood movement to build separate toilets for the maids in their employ, since she has decided it is "unsanitary" for both races to pee in the same place. This sounds extreme, but Whitley remembers, as a kid, getting his revenge on a nasty, prejudiced family in his neighborhood by getting a group of black kids to swim in their pool when they weren’t home. When the pool owners heard about this, they had the pool drained and its walls scrubbed, then refilled–all at great expense.
Whitley didn’t read the book, so the film surprised and upset him. In it, the white protagonist, who is listening to all the maids’ stories and writing a book about them, regrets that she never went to see the black woman named Columbine who raised her before Columbine died. Whitley had tears in his eyes on the way home. He told me, "I never went to see Annie either." In both cases, college and life intervened.
A few days later he told me that he had just remembered that when he first went out-of-body, there was an elderly black woman there. I told him, "That was Annie. She wanted to make sure you were all right."