“The Help,” You Say?


The Help photo

Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in “The Help” Photo credit: Disney

Ironically, the longer I lived in Indianola, Mississippi, the more recent the boycott seemed.

I started working there in 1996. The boycott happened in 1986. When I started, it was so long ago that it was when I was just starting middle school, and now I was out of college. Which, at that age, was forever.

By the time I left Indianola, I’d been there six years. A pretty decent chunk of the time between the boycott and when I started. And it seemed like it wasn’t as far in the past as it had been. And, of course, living in Indianola made it seem like maybe the boycott wasn’t as far in the past as I’d thought, either.

The boycott was probably the last major battle of the civil rights movement for Indianola. Robert Merritt, a very qualified, very capable and very popular principal had been passed over for the city school district’s superintendent position by the white school board. Initial protests were ineffective, and eventually a boycott of downtown businesses was mounted, which eventually resulted in changes to the school board that in turn resulted in Merritt beginning a productive tenure as superintendent.

There were still more “firsts” to be marked — it wasn’t until I was there that the majority-black city and county saw their first black mayor and black sheriff, for example, but those changes were relatively straightforward, without the need for boycotts or legal action. Merritt’s appointment wasn’t the end, but it was the turning point. It was before my time, but I definitely lived among its effects.

“The Help” is set in a period that was also before my time, three times further back than the boycott had been when I got to Indianola.

It was an odd experience watching the movie. I knew the locales, even if I was distracted by newspaper-name changes. And while the people were fictional, I knew them — not the exact individuals that inspired the Kathryn Stockett’s book, but certainly their peers. The White Citizens Council was, after all, founded in Indianola, and I dealt with people who had formerly been among its ranks.

Formerly because it no longer existed, and formerly because it was not the sort of thing you would have claimed by the time I was there.

And that was what made watching “The Help” such an interesting experience — it was at once hard and all too easy to believe. The Mississippi I knew was far removed in some ways from that time, enough that it was hard to imagine it being that recent, that immediate. But, at the same time, not far enough not to see how the past and the present were connected.

“The Help” may be based in reality, but it’s still fiction. It’s a slice of what life was like in Jackson, but it’s a carefully cut slice.

The truth, of course, is better and worse and stranger and more distant and more immediate than any movie could convey.

2 Responses

  1. im currently reading this book and i absolutely love it! it is weird to think that people actually treated other human beings the way they did, and it really wasnt to long ago..

  2. “The truth, of course, is better and worse and stranger and more distant and more immediate than any movie could convey.”

    I haven’t seen the movie (yet – it’s on my list, but Chad has an aversion to spending our all-too-precious-these-days theater time seeing movies that make me cry the ugly cry)… But I think this line sums up the South in a way that I can’t convey in words at all. (this is, I suppose, why you are a writer, and I am someone who occasionally types words).

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