The 1960s were years of turbulence. The bourgeois media talk only about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but in reality, the ’60s were about resistance to imperialism, with imperialist wars in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina, and social upheaval in the imperialist heartlands. Class and its handmaidens race and gender were under renewed scrutiny, and the latter were undergoing seismic changes.
The Help is a best-selling debut novel by US writer Kathryn Stockett. It has now been made into a film by Dreamworks and given the Hollywood treatment. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962/3, the story, in both book and film, unfolds through the eyes of three women: Aibileen, Minny and Eugenia.
Eugenia (‘Skeeter’ to friends and family) is a southern society girl, just graduated from the University of Mississippi, ‘Old Mis’, whose parents own a cotton plantation and who has a trust fund of cotton money to improve her chances on the marriage market (she is plain in the book but not in the film).
Her mother, Charlotte, makes it clear that Skeeter’s immediate task is to marry a ‘suitable’ boy and that her time was not best spent getting a degree if she didn’t also manage to find a husband (Old Mis being famed as a marriage mart for its female undergrads). Skeeter’s old schoolfriend Hilly had done just that, abandoning the remainder of her degree course on getting married.
[Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (1963) had yet to influence the young women brought up in the post-war years, when the role of homemaker was held up as women’s true vocation.]
Skeeter’s family is from that section of the middle class who employ African-American (‘coloured’) maids. The circles in which they move show all the classic symptoms of the insecurity of the petty-bourgeios: acutely aware that a change of fortune could send them down into the ranks of the working class, from whom they are careful to distinguish themselves by a hundred rules of social etiquette and with whom they will never mix socially.
These rules are particularly rigid in the case of the black working-class women whom they employ in their homes, where there is the history of slavery to add force to these rules of strict segregation. The irony is that while the black maids look after their babies, largely bringing up the children, and cook the food of their employers, they cannot touch the adults nor use the same bathrooms.
The maids have exchanged their grandparents’ slavery for wage slavery of the most pernicious kind. They are totally dependent on the goodwill of their particular employer, endure long hours, have the comfort of solidarity with their fellow workers only at home or at church, and are forced to keep working no matter what because their wage is essential to the household economy of their families.
Aibileen and Minny are black maids (part of the army of ‘help’ of the title) who work for Skeeter’s two oldest friends. They become the co-authors with Skeeter of a book telling the true stories of the lives of the black maids as a counter to the romanticised ‘Mammy’ of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936).
The project involves a secret collaboration that leads to friendship across the racial divide. Skeeter risks ostracism but Aibileen and Minny risk their lives in a state where segregation is law (not even school books can be transferred between ‘white’ and ‘black’ schools) and the KKK is still active, with widespread support in the white community. Like the book, the film follows all three characters, but in the film the balance is subtly tilted towards Skeeter as the main ‘heroine’, thus giving more prominence to the white viewpoint.
The film shows Hilly’s racism, which eventually leads to a breakdown of their friendship, as clearly as does the book. The film does not make it so clear that Hilly’s hostility to another young wife, Celia, does not just stem from jealousy over Celia’s having married a former, very eligible, boyfriend of Hilly’s, but from the inexcusable fact that she is of the wrong class, ie, the white working class or ‘white trash’, whose very existence blurs the careful distinction between white and black and also reminds the petty bourgeois uncomfortably of what will be their fate if the money runs out. (And, contrary to the film, the book’s Celia never learns to cook, so her continued employment of Minny is testament to their mutual need, not to Celia’s good-heartedness.)
However, in pursuit of the obligatory happy ending, Hollywood has considerably softened the racism of Charlotte, Skeeter’s mother. Skeeter comes home from college to find that Constantine, the family’s maid for 29 years, whom she loved, has left and her mother will not explain why.
In the novel, Aibileen tells Skeeter the story once the latter is ready to add her own experience to the book. When Skeeter confronts her mother, Charlotte is unrepentant: Constantine ‘forced’ Charlotte to sack her when she pleaded for her long-lost daughter to stay on the plantation, just out of the family’s way. Charlotte had found the pale-skinned daughter, having gate-crashed a gathering of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) hosted by Charlotte, passing as white, socialising with the guests and even about to apply to join the DAR herself.
Charlotte managed to keep the discussion with Constantine and her daughter away from her guests, who remained in blissful ignorance of the gross ‘insult’ perpetrated upon them. A cheque, sent by Charlotte to Constantine later, is returned by the daughter with the information that Constantine died just three weeks after moving in with her in Chicago.
Constantine had sent the daughter to an orphanage there, aged six, when her white appearance caused them both problems when out in Jackson while Constantine was off duty and so not in her maid’s uniform. After 20 years, the daughter traced her mother and came to see her, but committed the grave solecism of entering the house by the front and not the back door.
In the film, the whole of the story about the daughter’s colour – or lack of it – is lost. Hollywood’s Charlotte is repentant that she felt pressured to sack Constantine for pleading for forgiveness for the transgression (in entering by the front door and interrupting the gathering) of her daughter (whom the Hollywood Charlotte really loves) in front of Charlotte’s guests, who clearly expected Charlotte to punish this forwardness. Charlotte said that she had sent their son to Chicago to get Constantine back, but she had already died. Thus Skeeter and her mother (not an unfeeling monster after all) are reconciled before Skeeter leaves for New York to work for the publisher of the book.
Despite its shortcomings, the reviewer still recommends that you go and see The Help. There are stellar performances from the women actors of the cast, both black and white. The atmosphere of the USA in the early ’60s is brilliantly evoked: the clothes, hair, cars, the music and the landscape. The story will make you both laugh and cry. The film had the cooperation of the state government of Mississippi, and no doubt is meant to send you away with a warm feeling that things are better now.
To counter that, the reviewer recommends that you watch a short video of a comrade talking about the media war against Libya on cpgb-ml.org. Racism may be somewhat ameliorated in one place as a result of the determined struggle of the working and oppressed people but it will never be eradicated so long as imperialism exists. Racism is imperialism’s essential tool, both to justify the superexploitation of the oppressed nations abroad and to divide the working class in their struggle for socialism in the imperialist heartlands.