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NPR Arts & Life

Aibileen And Skeeter And Mookie And Sal: Love, Work And Watching 'The Help'

Viola Davis in "The Help"
Viola Davis in "The Help"

The Helpshot up the Netflix charts over the last week after Netflix added it on June 1, and I've been trying to wrap my head around it ever since. What, I wondered, other than the most general aspiration to engage with the idea of racism, could make this the the time to watch The Help, a 2011 film (based on a 2009 novel) about a white journalist who gets her big break passing along stories told to her by black maids in 1963? A movie Viola Davis regrets appearing in, because the maids' voices weren't placed at the center of the story? Based on a book that got its author sued? Sure, Netflix added it, Netflix promoted it — but an awful lot of people decided to watch it.

But let's put a pin in that for a minute, and let's talk about Mookie and Sal.

It's been hard not to think about Spike Lee's 1989 classic Do The Right Thing over the last two weeks, let alone the last ten years. The images are stark: the police officer killing Radio Raheem with a chokehold as the kid's feet twitch above the pavement, Mookie throwing a trash can through the window of Sal's Famous Pizzeria, the searing heat that's present in the images of a blisteringly hot day, and later in the crackle of a fire. That fire, those fire hoses, that police car speeding off with Radio Raheem's body stuffed in the back. And, of course, a block full of people in grief and anger from whom the police flee, leaving behind a situation where they have no idea what's about to happen, but what matters is that they won't be there for it.

Watching it again, though, I was struck by something else that seemed just as important: its ambivalence — really, its deep skepticism-- about the relationship between Mookie (Lee) and Sal (Danny Aiello), who runs the place where Mookie works delivering pizzas. Because it's a skepticism that doesn't start with a broken window.

Mookie and Sal

There is a kind of love Sal would likely say he has for Mookie — that he would say he has for the whole Bed-Stuy neighborhood where he's been in business for 25 years. He sits down by his front window and gives a speech to his vocally bigoted son Pino (John Turturro) about why he will not relocate, despite Pino's hatred of the clientele. In it, Sal speaks with convincing warmth, as the camera gently approaches the table and the window and the people outside, about how much it means to him that the black kids on the block have grown up eating his pizza. He will later tell Mookie that even after Pino and Vito take over the business, Mookie always have "a place" there, because he's "like a son" to him. It's not true: Mookie is nothing like a son to him. Sal's fondness for Mookie, like his fondness for the rest of his customers may be real, but it's also brittle, prone to shattering. His love for his sons, on the other hand, would survive anything.

Whether, and how, this affection is returned is just as complicated. Sal's is an institution, enough that when Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) tries to organize a boycott of Sal's over the lack of black faces on his Wall of Fame, there are initially no takers. The people in the neighborhood like Sal, they feel at home in his place, and they like the pizza. Buggin' Out is treated like something of a radical even by his friends, who just aren't up for a boycott on a miserably hot summer day. What's boycotting Sal going to do for anyone?

At the same time, Mookie receives Sal's words with a sort of aggravated impatience. He's working. They can share a laugh, but he's working.

To summarize the agonizing ending of the film: When four of those same neighborhood customers arrive just after closing that night, Sal has a reluctant Mookie, who just wants to go home, let them in for a slice. Buggin' Out, now accompanied by Radio Raheem, comes in behind them. Earlier in the day, Radio Raheem and Sal had a confrontation over Sal's insistence that there be no music in the pizzeria. Now, the music is back, blasting from the radio, even louder. The yelling starts. Sal picks up his bat and destroys the radio that's both an expensive piece of personal property and a key to Raheem's identity. So despite the broken window, the looting and the fire that so troubled some of the early commentators on the film, the first person who takes it upon himself to break someone else's stuff out of anger is Sal. And he does it for no better reason than that two guys who grew up on his pizza won't stop blasting, as he puts it, "jungle music."

Now Radio Raheem grabs Sal, pulls him across the counter, and gets the better of their physical fight. The police arrive, and they kill Radio Raheem with a chokehold as onlookers beg them to stop. The police grab Radio Raheem's body and speed away. The block pulses with grief and frustration. Mookie walks across the street to a trashcan, takes off the lid, removes the bag, kicks the lid away, carries the trashcan across the street and puts it through the window. The place is looted and burned.

Before all this, there's a kind of love, a kind, that connects Sal with these customers he thinks of as kids, like a spider web with only a few threads. It's part of why they came for pizza after closing, and it's part of why Sal let them in. But if you can call it love, it's the companionable love that comes from a shared history, not the more durable love that can come from a shared fate.

It's possible to read Do The Right Thing as a story in which everyone loses, where that's the bedrock tragedy of racism: relationships are shattered, Sal sees his business burn, Radio Raheem dies. Bad for everyone, the end. This is the way Sal tries to tell the story to Mookie the next morning — it's Buggin' Out's fault, because he started a fight when he didn't have to, and now everyone suffered. Danny Aiello speaks from the chest as he points out that he built his business with his own hands — every light socket, he says, and every tile — and now it's all gone.

But, in fact, Sal and the customers in the neighborhood have never had the same things at stake. There are elements of back and forth: Sal can break Radio Raheem's radio; Mookie can break Sal's window. Radio Raheem and Sal can fight, scrap on the ground, scream at each other. Buggin' Out throws slurs at Sal; Sal throws slurs at Radio Raheem, infuriating the four who came in for those closing-bell slices.

Nevertheless, Sal and Mookie (like Sal and Radio Raheem) lack a fully shared fate. For Sal, this block is where people work for him and buy things from him. For Mookie, it's where he lives, a largely black neighborhood where he works for a white-owned business. And also, of course, their odds are different in any confrontation because the police have an official monopoly on legal violence (to paraphrase Jill Leovy's excellent book Ghettoside, about murders that are and are not solved). "Can we all get along?", after all, is a sentiment best remembered alongside the fact that the man who uttered it did so after his own beating.

People have written for years about what makes Do The Right Thing "provocative," and in 1989, there were critics who seem to have been aghast at their suspicion that Lee sympathized with the people burning down Sal's pizzeria. (Some of the response was more appalling than this; Murray Kempton in the New York Review Of Books somewhat [in]famously wrote that Sal was the protagonist of the piece, Mookie such an "inferior specimen of a great race" that he couldn't even serve as a decent antagonist, and the film best understood as the story of Sal's sad realization that he was a dreamer and his grotesquely racist son who peppered his speech with slurs was merely the "realist.")

But I wonder whether one thing that made the film feel radical — and unsettling — was revealing the limits of Sal's relationship with Mookie. In fact, Sal's line, "You've always been like a son to me," is the last thing you hear before the four friends show up outside wanting their four slices and Sal lets them in — the first in the chain of events that leads to a young man's death.

Viewers have interpreted Mookie throwing the trashcan in a variety of ways; there are critical journal articles about it. Maybe he's acting on impulse, maybe he's acting out of longstanding anger, maybe he's an avatar for Lee himself hurling a trashcan at established filmmaking, or maybe he's encouraging the rage to be directed at the pizzeria rather than have people turn it against Sal and his sons, which saves their lives. But whatever else it does, throwing that trashcan is the end of any relationship in which Sal would ever say, "You've always been like a son to me." Maybe it's not just the trashcan itself that turns a segment of white viewers against Mookie and the crowd in the street; maybe it's that he doesn't appreciate what Sal considers to be genuine love that, to paraphrase Kempton, Mookie doesn't even remotely deserve.

Aibileen and Skeeter

All the skepticism about love that's present in Do The Right Thingis absent from The Help.

Admittedly, finding the parallels between these films is like finding the parallels between a wetsuit and a jumpsuit: You can kind of understand how they'd be in the same conversation, but you'd have to have both eyes closed to mistake one for the other. Nevertheless, when you see the quasi-familial parent-child bond that breaks apart in Do The Right Thing, it draws out what The Help has elided that makes it a bizarre but predictable comfort watch for a lot of — and this is speculation, given the opacity of Netflix numbers, but I stand by it — white people who sent it flying up the charts.

The Helpis about race, yes; it even has a handful of superficial narrative parallels with Do The Right Thing. (Again, jumpsuit/wetsuit. Maybe even spacesuit.) After all, The Helpalso shows close personal relationships between black people and white people, growing out of employment, built over years, that end in cathartic responses that offend, or wound, or mortify white employers. A black maid in The Help literally feeds her own [excrement] to her hateful, bigoted boss. And contrary to the frustrated reminder Mookie issues Sal after the fire about the fact that he'll be compensated for his losses, there is no insurance check to compensate for eating [excrement].

But The Help presents itself as warm, funny, "uplifting." It is not, to say the least, "provocative." Some of its trailers present it as half wacky comedy, half go-get-'em underdog movie, where it's the good guys (the maids plus Emma Stone) versus the bad guys (the mean white employers in town, particularly the wicked Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard). The trailer promises that the relationship between Skeeter (Stone) and Aibileen is "an unexpected friendship [that] will change everything."

In analytical terms: "Yyyyyyikes."

Perhaps "unlikely" is right, but "friendship" is awfully curious. Because here's how they meet: Skeeter gets a job writing a happy-homemaker column that she's not qualified to write, so she asks Aibileen, her friend's maid, to be her entirely unpaid ghostwriter. It's while benefiting from this unpaid labor (that she herself is being paid to do!) that Skeeter decides she wants to write a book about maids. And she wants Aibileen to stick her neck way, way out by sharing her experiences working for white families. So, yes, I'll say it's "unlikely," in that it's a rare friendship that begins with the party of the first part persuading the party of the second part to risk life and limb by excavating her history of being traumatized for free. (Skeeter will eventually share the money for the book with the maids, but this is not negotiated, transforming it into a magnanimous and unexpected act by Skeeter rather than literally the least she could do for women placing themselves at such risk.)

It's probably overly nitpicky to add that given that this all takes place in 1963, an awful lot of people would doubtless be surprised to hear that it "changed everything."

Money Can't Buy You Love

Skeeter, oh, Skeeter. One much-discussed element of The Help's racial politics is the role of the white savior. Take it away, critic Wesley Morris:

Skeeter's exposé is meant to empower both the subjects and the author, but The Help' joins everything from To Kill a Mockingbird' to The Blind Side' as another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism. Skeeter enjoys all the self-discovery and all the credit. She cracks the mystery of her missing childhood maid (Cicely Tyson). She finds a career at a moment in which women rarely had them. And she changes the lives of a couple of dozen black women whose change is refracted primarily through her. Skeeter's awakening is a seemingly risk-free reassurance, just as Hilly's Hanna-Barbera villainy is a kind of delight. [Hilly is the monstrous, most overtly racist woman played by Bryce Dallas Howard.] 

For sure, Skeeter is a classic film/television white savior. She couldn't be more so if she had an S on her chest. But there's something else that's profoundly amiss at the center of The Help, and it's the privileging of personal feelings and the utter failure to reckon with any of the realities of the power relationships between employees and employers — whether those employers are personally benevolent or not — that are so painfully evident in the relationship between Sal and Mookie.

In The Help, the love between maids and the children they raised, and in some cases the love between maids and adults they work for, exists outside structural inequalities and is affected by little other than personal cruelty or kindness. Far from being made of those fragile threads between Sal and the Bed-Stuy customers, the love between those with less power and those with more is the film's spine. Like Mookie, Aibileen can tell you exactly how much she makes in her economic exchange with her employer — she makes $182 a month; Mookie makes $250 a week — but for her, that's separate from the love that has connected her to the 17 white children she's raised. In fact, one of the things that marks Skeeter's mother (Allison Janney) as a villain is that she tells Skeeter that the maids are just employees — "We were just a job to her. With them, it's all about money." Obviously, this is racist, the way she says "them," and so forth. But what is so awful, in principle, about the idea that the heart of your relationship with someone you employ is economic? Why must Skeeter prove to her terrible mother that no, being a maid is about love?

Minny (Octavia Spencer) actually explains at one point that maids always love the kids they raise, until those kids grow up to be like their parents. And this is the betrayal we are led to believe hurts the most: the personal betrayal, not the systemic. Not the fact that Minny has to teach her own daughter how to step carefully around racist employers (don't let your hand touch theirs, don't mingle your dishes with theirs), but the fracturing of the bond between maids and other people's daughters. This conceptual muddle is evident when Minny starts talking about how difficult the job is and mentions not getting minimum wage or Social Security. Skeeter says maybe things can change. "What law's gonna say you got to be nice to your maid?" Minny snaps. And of course, no law is going to regulate niceness. But I can think of some that might address whether you get minimum wage and Social Security. Paying minimum wage isn't important because it's nice; it's important because it's just. The film's porous boundary between issues of economic justice and personal affection reappears over and over.

Skeeter has this fixation on love as well, particularly as regards the maid who raised her, Constantine. (Constantine is played by towering legend Cicely Tyson, making this as good a time as any to acknowledge that for all its narrative weaknesses, The Helpis full of brilliant actors.) Skeeter's original framing of the issue of the maids, as she explains it to her putative editor (Mary Steenburgen), is that the situation with the maids needs to be talked about more, because, as she puts it: "We love them and they love us, but they can't even use the toilets in our houses."

Skeeter fails to consider the following explanation for this seeming contradiction: Maybe if they can't use the toilets in your house, you don't love them. And maybe some of the way they treat you is for money. Maybe they don't love you. If that's the case, then maybe it's not a matter of mistreating people you love; maybe it's a matter of paying people for work, treating them miserably, and being so toweringly presumptuous as to assume the natural state of things is for them to love you.

Let's be clear: This is not to say, by any means, that it's unlikely, let alone impossible, for a person who works for someone to also love them, or to cast aspersions on the genuine love that maids and nannies and teachers and other people paid to care for children can feel for them. Far from it. But for love to be meaningful and aspirational, doesn't it have to be given in circumstances allowing both dignity and agency? Otherwise, it is brittle. It shatters under pressure. In this version of 1963 Mississippi, when some maids are "inherited" such that the right to employ them is "owned" by one family, and when a maid can be ruined by an accusation of theft whether true or false, how can Skeeter assert of those maids, "We love them and they love us"? What kind of a fantasy, and whose fantasy, is that? And why does the film seemingly assert that as long as the employer is nice, Skeeter is right?

Get this, if you've forgotten: After Skeeter has blown up a bunch of maids' lives by publishing their stories, she gets a job offer in New York and tells Minny and Aibileen that she isn't taking it, because she doesn't feel like she can just create all this chaos and danger for them and then pop off to New York. (One of her few good instincts.) The maids, in perhaps the movie's weirdest scene, assure her that she must go. She's right to go. They have gone through so much, after all, and "If bad things happen, ain't nothin' you can do about it," Aibileen says. "And now it's for a reason we can be proud of." This, after they've endured the assassination of Medgar Evers and worried that they'd be killed for telling their stories, is a reason for any "bad things" that they can be proud of: Skeeter's career. So little change, so much love.

Where there's anything remedied in The Help at all, it's racism seen as an accumulation of intimate cruelties that can — that could — be remedied without white employers giving up anything except their viciousness. You can go through the movie and separate every white woman in it into one of two categories: "is mean" and "is nice." And moving those women along that continuum (like Skeeter's mother) or punishing them for where they lie along it (like Hilly) is the focus of the film's emotional attention.

This is particularly painful because the ability to have and sustain personal and intimate feelings of love — whether platonic, romantic or familial — has long been presented in popular culture as justice in miniature, such that equality is defined as a hug heard 'round the world. In fact, there's an entire genre of film in which white people have the transformative experience of loving and being loved by Black people, and they are treated as movies that speak in some way to race. These stories arrive and arrive, and they have for decades. Some are better than others, but they are often (though not always) rewarded with audience enthusiasm, awards or both: The Help, The Green Mile, The Blind Side, Green Book, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? They've resulted in awards for a goodly number of white directors and white writers, serving as a ticket to a kind of respectability.

It calls to mind a tweet from Dan Hauge in 2017 that's been shared a couple of times since by the writer and NPR Code Switchhost Gene Demby. Hauge made the point that white people often "imagine the endgame of anti-racism as harmonious relationships rather than equal power to shape society." The Help has precisely this focus on emotional reconciliations — on combating injustice by letting people talk about their feelings and tell you what it's like to be them, and then leaving it at that.

It makes sense that in the world of camera phones, this phenomenon within studio filmmaking would have a mobile counterpart. And it does: the fixation, during any time in which discussions of systemic racism are prominent, on photos of individual black people and white people hugging or clasping hands, particularly if the white person is a police officer. Perhaps there is an audience for The Helpfor the same reason there is an audience for multiracial police hugs: when that audience tries to envision uprooting systemic injustice, they begin (and often end) at the level of the personal relationship. They envision a one-by-one transformation in which they are, for more and more and more people, the white person who is the beloved friend and not the person who fully deserves the pie full of [excrement]. And after long enough, the changes in government or media or human rights follow naturally.

But the transition from more loving personal relationships to more just structural ones is uphill, not down. Focusing on your personal relationships to the exclusion of considering bigger issues can bend your perspective; it's part of what the reviled cliché "some of my best friends are Black" is all about. It's easy to dream of being a Skeeter and easy to emerge as a Sal: at your best, a companion. At your worst, a danger.

There's no hug at the end of Do The Right Thing. Mookie shows up to get his pay from Sal while Sal is sitting on the front step of his burned pizzeria. Mookie may have been like a son to Sal, but Mookie is not there to offer comfort; he wants his money. Sal doesn't get any buy-in whatsoever from Mookie on his theory that a kid who just watched his friend choked to death should sympathize with his lost power outlets and burned tile. If anything, Sal and Mookie both are clear at the end of the movie on the fact that fondness, history and amiable companionship are ultimately unable to sustain individual personal connections in the absence of a shared fate.

What should you aspire to if you are on the side of a system that gives you power and makes you the person more likely to be believed, less likely to be killed, more likely to own property and be the boss, less likely to bite your tongue over your low wages? Should you aspire to personal connection? Or should you aspire to a world in which your maid is free to love you or not? Maybe it's not about justice for the person who raises you, raises your daughter, is like a son to you, or tells you you're kind and smart and important. Maybe it's about justice for the person you walk by, who walks by you, who can take or leave you.

In a society that's fair, the right to move through the world on equal footing is not contingent on a network of personal bonds. It belongs to the extrovert, the introvert, the hugger, the stranger, and honestly, the complete jerk. Broader matters of justice are not addressed by the presence of kindness within broken systems. Obviously, kindness is always better than unkindness, and love better than no love, all other things being equal.

It's that last part that so many stories — including The Help — leave out.

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