BY Film Critic and Author Ed McNulty
The hit movie based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller The Help ranked No. 1 this weekend, topping Apes, Smurfs, Conan and an Idiot Brother. That popularity is remarkable and comes despite a hurricane on the East Coast and some justified criticism that a white novelist wrote this story relating African-American experiences in the South during the early 1960s.
Millions know the basic storyline: Two African-American maids—Aibileen (Viola Davis shown in the photo above) and her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer)—are at first skeptical of white Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a young journalist who wants to write a book about them. Eventually, the three bond into a friendship that crosses racial and social barriers. Sisterhood has seldom been treated so well in film.
Many filmgoers come home from a movie like The Help and begin scrolling through Netflix or other online movie sites, looking for more movies on the same theme. My mind moved in the same direction, so let’s compare lists: Here are other films dealing with racism in the South (primarily Mississippi). With one major exception these are films that enrich our understanding of the milieu of The Help.
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Movies on Overcoming Racism
The Long Walk Home
Set during the 1955-1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, director Richard Pearce’s The Long Walk Home focuses upon one maid and her employer. In a restrained performance, Whoopi Goldberg shines as Odessa Cotter, a maid more like Aibileen than the brassy Minny. She and her husband (played by Ving Rhames) both agree they will not ride segregated busses. Unfortunately, Odessa works for the Thompson family who live in an area not reached by the makeshift alternative transportation system set up by the boycott committee. Her employer Miriam Thompson, well played by Sissy Spacek (she plays an older matriarch in The Help), is upset that Odessa arrives late and tired for work, so she surreptitiously begins to drive her on most days. There is a scene reminiscent of The Help in which Odessa is serving the Thompson family a holiday dinner, thus having to forego her own family’s celebration. The raising of the social consciousness of Miriam is well handled in the film.
Freedom Song and the next in this list are the two best films depicting the beginning of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Danny Glover is a co-producer and star, playing a World War II veteran who once made an unsuccessful attempt to organize black voters—and paid a traumatic price. This tension between generations regarding civil rights is back in headlines thanks to The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir by NPR’s Michele Norris about her own father—who returned from WWII as a proud veteran and wound up in a tragic shooting incident. In the fictional Freedom Song, Glover’s experience after WWII is played against that of his son, who becomes part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Freedom Song has been used in high school classrooms as a dramatic window into this same era when Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny and their friends were writing a book.
For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story
Actor Ossie Davis, Jr. joined with Ken Rotcop to adapt Myrlie Evers’ book about the life and death of her husband, who headed up the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP. The Help depicts briefly the impact of his death upon the black community of Jackson, Mississippi, and director Michael Schultz’s film shows why Medgar Evers posed such a threat to the state’s racist caste system. For now, For Us the Living is only available on VHS.
Ghosts of Mississippi
Despite its flaws, Rob Reiner’s 1994 film Ghosts of Mississippi might be watched as a follow on For Us the Living because it shows that eventually killer Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods) is brought to justice in 1989. The major flaw is that the film centers on District Attorney Bobby DeLaughters (Alec Baldwin) rather than the widow who kept pursing justice for almost 30 years, Myrlie Evers (Whoopi Goldberg).
Murder in Mississippi
Many awaited the DVD release of Murder in Mississippi because it powerfully shows the human faces of the three civil rights workers murdered at the beginning of the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964. Some criticize this film for focusing more on a white martyr Mickey Schwerner (Tom Hulce) and his wife Rita Schwerner (Jennifer Grey), than on the black SNCC veteran James Chaney (Blair Underwood) and college student Andrew Goodman (Josh Charles). All in all, however, this film does a good job of depicting the events of the murders with none of the phony attempt of Mississippi Burning to portray the FBI as heroic saviors.
The War, a neglected Jon Avnet film, looks at racism in a small Mississippi town. Kevin Kostner plays Stephen Simmons, a Vietnam vet so traumatized by the war that he has trouble holding a job. Mare Winningham is Lois, his wife trying to make the most of their hardscrabble life for their daughter Lidia (Lexi Randall) and son Stu (Elijah Wood). The secondary meaning of the title refers to a small war over a tree house between the children, aided by some black and white friends, and a bunch of ruffians who are the children of a vicious junkyard dealer.
A Time to Kill
Based on John Grisham’s novel, the 1996 A Time to Kill centers on the trial of Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) whose 10 year-old daughter is raped by two white men. When the men are taken for arraignment to the courthouse, the enraged Hailey kills them with his rifle. Matthew McConaughey plays the liberal lawyer who defends him. Despite some problems, including some troubling moral implications, this is a compelling film.
I loathed this inaccurate film from the first viewing, when it was released on the 1988 birthday holiday of Martin Luther King, Jr. This fictionalized account of the hunt for the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers in 1964 gets about everything wrong, except for the depiction of the burning of more than 30 black churches by racists. Having been a part of the Mississippi Summer Project myself and witnessing the incredible courage of the African Americans with whom I worked, I hated the film’s depiction of black Mississippians as helpless victims waiting for noble FBI agents to rescue them. I include the film here as an ongoing warning against its many flaws.
Ed McNulty’s full review of The Help is available at his own website called Visual Parables.
Care to read more from Edward McNulty?
Read Ed McNulty’s earlier series in ReadTheSpirit: TOP 10 JESUS MOVIES!
Consider these books, collecting dozens of his reflections on movies that you can read for fun and inspiration—or use to spark spirited small-group discussion.
- Praying the Movies, available via Amazon, includes McNulty’s look at Star Wars, Schindler’s List, the Deer Hunter and Pulp Fiction.
- Praying the Movies II: More Daily Meditations from Classic Films, also at Amazon, includes McNulty’s reflections on Gandhi, It’s a Wonderful Life, Harry Potter and O Brother, Whereart Thou?
- Faith and Film: A Guidebook for Leaders, includes Amistad, Erin Brockovich, the Matrix and Shawshank Redemption.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)