Artifact in Socio-Cultural Context — the Help (touchstone, 2011)
The 2011 motion picture, the Help depicts the everyday life of African-American women living in the U.S. southern states at the time of the early Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. More specifically, it provides the narrative perspective of the thousands of black women working as maids for wealthy white southern society members only a generation or two since the ancestors of the latter owned the enslaved ancestors of the former on many of the same properties.
The characteristics and norms of these hardworking women were almost entirely shaped by their external society. They were obliged by social circumstances prevailing at the time to interact completely differently with white people than with members of their own race. All of them had to rely substantially on their ability to conduct themselves submissively in the presence of white people. Meanwhile, their interactions amongst themselves revealed how much of their real selves they had to conceal from view throughout their work week and any social interaction with white people. The concern with one working mother for the education prospects of her two sons illustrates that despite tremendous differences in their race-choreographed social dance, their most genuine values are the same: to support their respective families.
Generally, the language and communication style of the group was very similar to their white counterparts and seemed to reflect geographical influence more than racial or ethnic influence. However, the members of black society in the film spoke, especially among themselves, an American English dialect that was characteristic of American blacks of the time period. It developed from the abbreviations and mispronunciations typically associated with lack of any formal education in the Post-Civil-War Era in combination with regional influence (Healey, 2008).
Among the ironies evident in the film, the hardest-working people in the community seemed to be the black women employed by white families. That obviously conflicts with some of the most common racist themes about African-Americans: that they are “lazy” or, in the vernacular of the era, “shiftless” (Healey, 2008). Racial bias was the societal norm in Mississippi in the 1960s; in fact, both stereotyping and prejudice were actually codified into laws that criminalized the promotion of racial equality. Blacks were still prohibited by law from using the same facilities as whites when the movie opens. One of the white employers devotes her community improvement efforts to enacting a new law requiring separate bathrooms in any home employing black housekeepers.
The characters in the film exhibit a quiet dignity and attitudes that contradict another typical racially prejudiced stereotype: namely, that American blacks are secretly seething with hatred toward white people. Some of the characters do express intense anger and resentment, but it is always perfectly understandable, always directed at specific individuals who provoked it, and it was always very long overdue by any objective standards. All of the black women had endured countless horrifying circumstances of racism and experienced shameful cruelty in various forms on a very regular basis. Still, they maintained the very ability that seemingly all members of southern white society lacked: the ability to perceive and judge other people as individuals whose values and behavior define their character and not their race or ethnicity. Unlike their employers, the black women in the film were able to recognize the elements of individual character.
The Help. (2011). Touchstone Films.
Healey, J.F. (2008). Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class: The Sociology of Group
Conflict and Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
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