REACTIONS TO THE HELP
I always feel the same way when I walk out of a movie about racism, or civil rights, or bigotry, or anything the ACLU would grind an axe about. I suppose I feel the same way when I walk out of all these movies because all these movies seem to follow the same formula: the oppressed party, whether a character, or a group of people, always seems to win. They successfully stand up to their oppressors, always in an admirable way as to maintain the integrity of the definition of a protagonist. And because I, the viewer, have been set up by the filmmakers to identify with the protagonist I feel a sense of vindication and victory, and sometimes even validation.
This wasn’t the case with The Help.
Now, The Help was almost exactly what I expected it to be. I expected a civil rights movie that was primarily about racial issues, but brought along corollary commentaries on feminism and families and parenting, featuring a beautiful and righteous protagonist who faces utterly despicable antagonists to restore the dignity of those the antagonists discriminate against, complete with shocking displays of bigotry and racism that would make my blood boil as i sat in the theatre, and an ending that would provide resolution as the protagonist and the oppressed party claimed victory over their circumstances and their oppressors. And on it’s most basic level, The Help was precisely that.
But I didn’t feel good when I walked out of the theatre tonight after seeing The Help. I didn’t feel vindicated and victorious and validated. In fact, for the first time in my life, I didn’t walk out of the theatre having identified with the protagonist. I walked out of the theatre having identified myself as the antagonist.
When I see a movie about racism in the 50s and 60s I have a tendency, as I suspect many of us do, to think to myself, I’m so glad it isn’t like this anymore. But if I were being honest with myself, I’d have to admit that while discrimination may not be the hot-button issue it was then, that it is still alive in well in the world, and in my own life. I may not be a racist, but I can’t say that I’ve always been comfortable around gay people, or that I haven’t made snarky comments like, “He looks like one of those guys I went to high school with,” or cast quiet (or loud) judgement on whole groups of people on campus based on allegations and reputations bestowed upon them by “people like me.”
To be fair, my own prejudices have never led to aggression. They’ve not even come close. And chances are that if you were to ask my closest friends, they wouldn’t characterize me as hateful, or bigoted, or as having prejudices that manifest themselves in observable ways–but they’re there. Somewhere inside my flesh, there are spots on my soul. Spots of superiority and judgement. Spots of pride. Spots of cowardice. And even though I may not be the most prominent or active oppressor of those people in my life that I have reservations about, I have failed, by-and-large, to advocate for them. To preserve or restore the dignity of people who aren’t like me, or aren’t my friends.
A couple years ago I was sitting in a McDonalds waiting on a friend. A man approached the counter to order while talking on his phone, something I’ve considered to be slightly rude ever since I worked at HEB and was often faced with the difficulty of serving someone who was trying to carry on two conversations at once. The girl behind the counter was a very young Hispanic girl who spoke with a thick accent. The man on the phone barked his order at her very quickly, as though he were trying to complete his transaction while the person on the other end of his phone were talking. The girl behind the counter didn’t catch it all, and asked him a clarifying question. He responded in short, repeating his order again, visibly frustrated, and then continued to talk on his phone. The girl, wanting to guarantee that she had his order right, repeated it back to him. The man, who was now very frustrated with her, snapped back at her,
“I already told you twice what I wanted. What are you so confused about?”
She apologized, took his money, and completed the transaction without a word.
Minutes later, the man returned to the counter. holding out an unwrapped sandwich in his hand, he proceeded to berate the girl–the cook had prepared his sandwich incorrectly, and in his mind it was the girl’s fault. He scolded her as she apologized over and over, until he raised his voice to a near shout:
“Maybe if you learned some fucking English, you wouldn’t have got my order wrong.”
The entire restaurant heard him. People abandoned their conversations to look up at the man and the girl. The girl looked like she was going to cry. The manager stepped out to see what was the matter. The girl was silent as the man gave the manager his side of the story, not neglecting to mention the girl’s race. And as all of this happened, I sat at my table and seethed with anger. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to scream as much as I did then. I wanted to defend the girl, and to give that man a verbal lashing hard enough to bruise in front of a restaurant full of onlookers.
But I did nothing. I sat at the table, on the edge of the seat I was glued to, and let it all happen without involving myself.
Some might commend me for staying put, for not acting out in anger. But to this day, I consider sitting silently in observation as that man destroyed that girl’s dignity my most cowardly act, and I find myself even now wishing that I could go back and blow the whistle on the whole thing. In the case of Angry Phone Man vs. Girl Behind the Counter, I chickened out and sided with Angry Phone Man. I chose not to involve myself and chose not to preserve the dignity of that girl whose dignity was under attack.
I didn’t play the role of a hero in her life. I played the role of a villain.
Psalm 103:6 says, “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”
I’m far more content to watch movies about other people who do justice, to promote the causes of other people who stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, than to stand up and do justice myself. I suppose that it took seeing a movie like The Help to make me think about these things. And if you should see The Help, I hope you’ll be inclined to not simply be satisfied in rejoicing in cinematic displays of justice, but to join me as I do my damnedest to be one who gets his hands dirty doing justice for all who are oppressed.