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Myrlie Evers-Williams tells why 'The Help' is a cultural touchstone (essay)

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Despite the critical and commercial success of The Help, it has not been able to avoid triggering a polarized response in its depiction of race relations. Does the film still propegate black stereotypes, despite its honorable intentions? Perhaps. But addressing any aspect of American history and race is also an invitation to a complex and fiery debate. Regardless of one's own opinion on the merits of Kathryn Stockett's best seller or filmmaker Tate Taylor's award-winning screen adaptation, the true success of the material is that it continues to allow for passionate dialogue about our national identity. That is what makes Myrlie Evers-Williams recent essay on The Help such essential reading.

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Evers-Williams more than understands the lives depicted in The Help. She lived out both the joyous and tragic reality in bringing equality to Black Americans. The murder of her husband, Medgar Evers, remains a horrific cost to the struggle, but she continues to assure his legacy will not be forgotten. Today, Evers-Williams continues her activism in no less powerful terms. She continues to write, offering her own take on the importance of The Help and the lessons of the Civil Rights era that continue to resonate into the 21st century. The Walt Disney Studios and Dreamworks, which released The Help, recently sent out this Evers-Williams' essay to all media, which is now available to all Examiner reader in its entirety:

My mother was 'the help.' And so was her mother. I’m telling you these things because they were courageous and they were not alone in their courage. Legions of black women like them—maids and waitresses and caretakers who fanned out across Vicksburg and Mississippi and the South to work in the homes and restaurants and hotels owned, operated and occupied by whites—practiced small measures of courage every day by facing constant violent threat and institutionalized racism instated by the very people they were charged with feeding, rearing and caring for their children.

Theirs is an American story that is rarely told on any grand, meaningful scale—not one, at least, that defies stereotype and caricature. But recently, The Help, a film based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling book of the same name, became a cultural touchstone when two of its lead characters, both African-American maids in the then-staunchly segregated Mississippi, challenged viewers to walk their journey—to see, as lead protagonist, Abileen Clark, said, 'what it felt like to be me.'

To me, The Help is this year’s most outstanding and socially relevant motion picture; Viola Davis’ quiet but powerful portrayal of Abileen made us all take notice of a historically invisible class of women and Abileen’s story, along with those of the other maids who rallied with her to tell it, remind us that when we speak, if only in a whisper, momentous things can happen.

Of course, the movie, does not come without its controversy: while so many, myself included, questioned then embraced Stockett’s story and actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer earned Academy Award nominations for their roles as the maids who conspired with a young white woman to canonize their life stories, others question why, 70 years after Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her portrayal as the affable, sassy slave maid Mammy in Gone With the Wind, Hollywood ushered to the screen a movie feting the Jim Crow subjugation of black women.

What is lost in the debate is that the movie tells a story that needed to be told in a grand way—the story of ordinary women who, even in their housemaid uniforms, were everyday heroes.

This isn’t about Hollywood. This isn’t about “black” stories and who tells them. This is about our mothers and grandmothers. And the countless other women who were “the help”—the women who climbed off the bus Saturday afternoons after a hard week of tireless, thankless work, and, still in their uniforms, made their way to my husband’s office at the NAACP to stake their claim in a movement they hoped could one day change their lives. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to march,” they’d say. And then they would put their hands in the top of their dresses and blouses and pull out those damp handkerchiefs, wet from the sweat of their labor, pull out a dollar, some change, and donate their meager earnings to The Movement. These women were the help. They were not catalogued in the Civil Right tomes or washed down by hoses or chased down by police dogs; instead, they left their children at home by themselves or had an older child next door care for them while they worked and took care of white ladies’ children and their homes, often for little pay, no respect and much duress. They were an important but often forgotten part of the narrative—an institution of strong souls who took the hurt and the pain that they felt from not being treated like humans, from not being able to be mothers to their children, from not being able to dream out loud, and survived.

That wasn’t that long ago.

It was in our collective lifetimes.

And it is the truth— a truth, despite those who would rather bury it under a mountain of shame, that really matters. That deserves to be shared and celebrated, like it has been in cultural touchstones like To Kill A Mockingbird and, now, The Help. My hope is that this movie will continue to be taken into schools so that this generation of children, who, thanks to the passage of time and the devaluation of Black History in America’s classrooms, tend to have a cookie cutter image of the Civil Rights Movement as some distant event that began and ended with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, will learn the true story of the struggle and relate it to modern day efforts of everyday Americans to affect change—from those fighting for gay rights to those on the frontlines of the Occupy Wall St. movement. Learning about The Help could certainly give power to the idea that everyone has the great potential to be powerful and important—that you don’t have to be an icon to change the world. To want a better life.

And as we consider the sacrifices of the help, it’s even more important to remember that they had dreams—aspirations. That they wanted better for themselves and their children and their children’s children. That they wanted to be free. How appropriate, then, that The Help ends with Abileen, having been unceremoniously fired for telling her story, walking down the street, tall and stately, with a knowing smile on her face that says, “Don’t worry—I got this”? Her words were the perfect exclamation point to the film—to the legions of black women whose stories have gone untold for much too long. “No one,” she said, “had ever asked me what it felt like to be me. Once I told the truth about that, I felt free.”

Free, indeed.

The Help is playing at select theaters in Los Angeles and is available on Blu-ray & DVD. Check out Fandango, MovieTickets and NCM for tickets and theater information.

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