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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

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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