I served a small rural congregation in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1970s. As the (very) young pastor of an all-white church in the midst of a predominantly black population, you couldn’t breathe the air without participating in some form of de facto segregation. During the candidating visit, my (very recent) bride and I were invited to stay at the home of the chair of the pastor nominating committee, where we were awakened in the morning with a knock on the door and a uniformed maid entering the bedroom to serve us orange juice on a silver tray, and to announce that breakfast would be served in the dining room in 30 minutes.
Out in the fields, black laborers were chopping cotton – clearing weeds with hand-held hoes, as they had been doing for centuries. Their ramshackle houses adjoining the turn rows were of wooden frame construction, with sometimes an old outhouse still visible in the weeds. At the church, I was introduced to the elderly black janitor as “Mister Ron,” and he was just “Joe.” Being the supposedly cosmopolitan, overeducated, young know-it-all that I was, I insisted on flouting convention and calling him “Mr. Joe,” and encouraged him to call me “Ron,” until, after several encounters of poignant awkwardness, he asked me not to do that. He was not comfortable subverting those invisible social barriers that had held together the social fabric of that community much longer than either one of us had lived.
The whites, for their part, all had “domestics” in their houses and “field hands” on their farms, but on the weekends there was a very strict segregation – socially, in the house parties and clubs, and especially on Sundays during worship. And yet, there were also memorable incidents of incredible caring across the vast chasm of racial divide. Yes, after enforced busing, the whites had fled to private schools, leaving the public schools solely to the blacks. Casinos had not yet invaded to transform the entire landscape, not to mention personal computers, cell phones, the Internet, or a black man in the White House. That antebellum-looking world no longer exists. And yet, I believe I can vouch for the incredible accuracy of the raw atmosphere created by “The Help,” the fictional-but-true-to-life account of Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. It just feels painfully real.
Emma Stone plays an aspiring young journalist trying to encourage the housemaids of this close-knit community to tell their personal stories so she can be published in New York. Naturally, they are reluctant, at first, to upset the delicate social applecart, but after some appalling injustices, the wall of silence finally breaks. There are some truly incredible performances here, most notably by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as long-suffering household servants, but also by Bryce Dallas Howard as the snippy socialite and Jessica Chastain as the “poor white trash” who suffered her own particular brand of indignities. And who wouldn’t like Sissy Spacek as the cackling dowager who brings down the whole house of cards of desperate deception?
This film is practically guaranteed to generate an emotional response in the viewer. And, maybe, in the safe and anonymous darkness of the quiet theater, the demon of personal prejudice can be confronted, exorcised and banished as well.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.