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‘The Help’ surprises with dignified portrayal of black maids

EmmStone (from left) OctaviSpencer ViolDavis “The Help.” | AP

Emma Stone (from left), Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in “The Help.” | AP

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:26AM

For obvious reasons, I had expected to dislike “The Help.”

Kathryn Stockett is a white woman and her writing a book about black women having to “Yes ma’am,” and “No ma’am” their lives away didn’t sit well with me.

What gives her the right to tell this story in the first place?

To make matters worse, Stockett is profiting off the painful plight of black women who lived and died in a racist world.

But after watching the film version of “The Help,” which opened in movie theaters this week, I forgot all about the hand that penned this work.

Thanks to the insightful direction of Tate Taylor, and the acting of Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark, and Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, I walked out of the theater with a greater appreciation for the black women who bore this burden.

Because of Davis’ and Spencer’s emotional performances, “The Help” became more than a movie about a white woman’s (Emma Stone as Skeeter Phelan) struggle to find her place in the world, and white redemption.

Davis’ portrayal of a nanny captured the strong faith that helped black women endure the indignity of Jim Crow. Spencer absolutely soared as the no-nonsense Minny, who — despite her hard edges — has a heart of gold.

Both of these actresses are immensely talented. It is ironic that they will likely pick up major awards for playing black maids.

For the most part, “The Help,” didn’t tell black people anything new.

Most from my generation have already heard horror stories about what it was like to work in white folks’ houses.

But how many white people can really say they know how black people felt about the Jim Crow era?

But I disagree that the script needed a harder edge, as if the omission of a rape scene or acts of brutality trivialize the issue.

The image of an elderly Constantine (played by Cicely Tyson) trying to serve up peas during lunch as the elderly members of the Daughters of the American Revolution looked down on her with disgust spoke volumes.

I had to fight back the tears.

Two seats away, an elderly white woman was doing the same.

Others have dismissed “The Help” as a “heartwarming” fable, and some bloggers are urging blacks to boycott this film.

That would be unfortunate.

Any movie about the racist South that ends with the black heroine walking off to a brighter future, instead of with a lynching or assassination, is worth the admission and the $5.50 bag of popcorn.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever considered the complex relationships that must have developed between the white families and the black women who raised white children, cleaned white houses and kept white secrets.

For instance, it was Minny to whom Celia Foote (played by Jessica Chastain) turned to for support when she had a miscarriage. While Skeeter obviously has compassion for the black maids, Celia, whom the other women considered white trash, treated Minny as her equal.

All of these women, black and white, were chained under circumstances that revealed what was inside their hearts. Some were cowards. Some had courage.

Taylor could have ruined this movie by focusing too much on the white women and not enough on the black maids.

Like most issues involving race, debates about “The Help” have blown up the Internet. I hope you join the conversation by seeing this movie for yourself.

After seeing “The Help,” I can look at those old black-and-white movies with the walk-ons of black women dressed in starched uniforms and white stockings and see more than a maid.

I’m grateful that the director of this film made sure of that.

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