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Steve Hansen A look at how ‘The Help’ compares to my experiences

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:35 am, Wed Mar 21, 2012.

The movie "The Help" was given accolades before and during the 84th Academy Awards, and rightly so. Few would disagree that it was one of the better screenplays and acting performances of 2011.

One thing that bothers me is the stereotypical version from Hollywood about the South during the late 1950s and early '60s. I wonder If people who did not live during those times walk out of the theater thinking: "That's the way it was everywhere in Southern states."

From my perspective, the movie gives the impression that most whites were ignorant and racist, while most blacks were wise, but oppressed. Only a few young whites were able to see the evil of racial segregation.

While I can't speak for the ways of Mississippi where the movie took place, I can speak for my experience in Virginia during the early 1950s.

We had an African-American maid while living in this Southern state. Sometimes, she took care of two sisters and me. She also performed general housekeeping duties. Our home was large and built for high-ranking military officers. It had a maid's quarters at the end of the riverfront clapboard dwelling with sleeping and restroom facilities.

Here are a few examples seen in the movie where my experiences may or may not coincide:

Movie Stereotype: Whites who lived in the South were mostly racist and uneducated.

Experience: At the time, my father was a dentist and my mother had a bachelor's degree in journalism. Our neighbors were college-educated as well.

MS: Whites would be very upset if blacks used their restroom.

E: In those days, many public facilities in Virginia were segregated. In our house, Mom and Dad did not want their own kids using master bathroom facilities. We had ours and they had theirs. They saw their facilities as "privileged" — something like an executive washroom.

MS: White parents didn't care about their kids. Maids raised them.

E: Our maid helped, but Mom was in charge and took the major responsibilities.

MS: The maids taught white kids about self-esteem.

E: Not in our family. The maid rarely said anything about "life experiences." Mom and Dad took that role.

MS: White women did not cook. Only the maids knew how to make delicious meals.

E: Again, not with us. Mom did all the cooking.

MS: The maid would not eat at the same table as the household family.

E: That's true, but only because without saying "goodbye," the maid was out of there by 5 p.m. She wanted to get home to her own family. However, sitting at our table could have been problematic based on master/servant protocol, rather than a black and white issue.

MS: Whites hated blacks and resisted any effort on the part of African-Americans to advance socially.

E: In our house, it was strictly a non-emotional, business relationship on both sides.

So you see, I can't argue with the experiences of those who wrote the novel or the screenplay. I can only tell you mine, and some of them were quite different.

The bottom line for Hollywood is to make a sellable story, coupled with a pragmatic profit. To meet these goals, sometimes history is rewritten to match the assumptions of present-day belief systems. Other times, it can be acutely accurate.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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  • Joanne Bobin posted at 4:51 pm on Wed, Mar 21, 2012.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Excellent comments, Mr. Kinderman.

    It is really a shame that Huckeberry Finn is banned as public school reading in many places. Although published in the mid 1880's, the attitudes depicted in the book persisted throughout the Deep South and most likely apply to those depicted in "The Help." At the very least, Huck Finn should be mandatory reading for HS seniors who, hopefully, have achieved the maturity to learn something from the vernacular and stereotypes Twain uses.

    Our family visited Virginia frequently when I was a child, spending vacations exploring Revolutionary War and Civil War battlegrounds and other historic sites. Never once did I see evidence of the type of Jim Crow laws that were prevalent further south.

  • Jerome Kinderman posted at 12:46 pm on Wed, Mar 21, 2012.

    Jerome R Kinderman Posts: 2370

    I viewed this movie with my 20-year-old daughter. And while I was entertained and informed regarding what I had already accepted were the attitudes of the races during that era (having seen first-hand the differences between South Jersey and Greenville, Mississippi (northern part of the state along Old Muddy itself), I was left with what some might consider a foul taste in my mouth.

    Sure, most of what emanates from Hollywood now would have garnered at least an "R" rating if released during the 50s and 60s (yes, I know there were no ratings such as we know them now back then), but after being informed as to the special ingredient in one of the pies over and over and over again - the message it attempted to conveyed was equally as dirtied as the Mississippi River itself.

    Yet I have to wonder how well Mr. Hansen reviewed his latest column prior to submission for publication with his statement that ". . . [the black maid] sitting at our table could have been problematic based on master/servant protocol, rather than a black and white issue" nicely tucked away within his ignorant comparison between Virginia and Mississippi. Considering that his by-line doesn't include "satirist" this time around, what kind of reaction could he have been expecting?

    Well, at least so far he's gotten away with it. He should understand that even then there was no difference between "master/servant" and "black/white" as they were synonymous. I recall well as a child visiting the Mississippi area in 1962 with its "Whites Only" water faucets and restrooms and the Greenville public pool as white as it could possibly be in a town with a very large black population.

    Well, I lived it, Mr. Hansen; as I’ve got an incredible story to tell on the issue of race relations and racial violence just a few years later as I along with a few hundred other white students attended a white’s only institution at the epicenter of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Civil Rights movement. Sadly, I doubt anyone at the News-Sentinel would be at all interested. Instead, we’re treated to the likes of Steve Hansen’s pathetic little Q&A. Oh well.

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 9:29 am on Wed, Mar 21, 2012.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Good perspective, Mr. Wright.

  • Greg Wright posted at 7:46 am on Wed, Mar 21, 2012.

    Greg Wright Posts: 4

    Hey Steve! Just got done with a great book "American Nations" by Colin Woodward. Woodward traces the different groups that settled the United States. Virginia and the Deep South are apples and oranges. Virginia was settled by the Cavaliers or country gentleman from the feudal north and west of England. South Carolina was settled by plantation owners from Barbados in the West Indies. The version of slavery that spread throughout the Deep South was the brand brought up by these British Americans from Barbados. Slaves were chattel and less than human. Virginia was definitely a class society but not nearly as brutal as the Deep South. Slavery spread west with the cotton culture and the aggressive nature of this Barbados model. The Virginia Tidewater planters remained in Virginia where they owned the land and sold surplus slaves to the new slave holding lands in the Deep South: Carolinas, Georgia, parts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and eastern Texas. Similar book to Kevin Phillips "The Cousins War" in 1999. Hope all is well with you!


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