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The Help, Refinishing, Sense of Wonder - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 18, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

The Help, Refinishing, Sense of Wonder

When it comes to racism in the Jim Crow era, it's not as if anyone needs to choose up sides anymore.

Anyone who still thinks segregation was a good idea is so marginalized these days that it's hard to remember anymore that once upon a time, most Americans, black and white, pretty much took segregation for granted.

Not that most people liked it -- they just assumed that it was inevitable.

It's easy to forget that, like slavery before it, segregation had to be maintained by constant vigilance.

For in the South, where blacks and whites had constant contact with each other, it was hard to keep up the impossible fiction that blacks were simultaneously so inferior that they could not be given full citizenship, and yet so dangerous that the slightest uppity tendencies had to be nipped in the bud.

When well-to-do whites were employing black women to clean their houses and raise their children, it was almost inevitable that a kind of friendship would evolve. After all, they were allies in a common enterprise.

On the one hand, white children who grew up in the loving care of black maids and nannies had to find it hard to forget that once upon a time, black women were a source of many good things in their lives.

On the other hand, white women had to be uneasy about the love their own children felt for the black women who were raising them.

The movie The Help might seem to first glance to be the cliche story about how heroic white people bravely worked to liberate the blacks who could not free themselves.

There is, after all, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a recent university graduate who is trying to advance her own career while setting the world to rights by writing down the lives and experiences of Southern black housemaids and nannies.

Skeeter is one of the seemingly few white adults who remember with love the black women who raised them; what begins as journalism soon becomes a cause.

But the movie quickly makes hash of the cliche. Skeeter has little at risk, compared to the black women who are putting their jobs and perhaps their lives on the line by talking to her.

Emma Stone is luminous as Skeeter, and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are brilliant in their portrayal of the two black women who, unwillingly at first, become the leaders in organizing the maids to take part in the project.

Their stories are tragic and funny by turns, and they are at the heart of the movie.

And yet, in a curious way The Help is really driven by white women:

Allison Janney plays Skeeter's mother, who, fearful of disapproval, fired Skeeter's beloved nanny Constantine (Cicely Tyson at her glorious best) while Skeeter was away at college. She knew it was wrong, and tried to conceal it from Skeeter.

Jessica Chastain plays a "white trash" woman who married "above her station" -- she comes to rely on her black maid as a friend who helps her learn how to cook, keep house, and function in white society.

Ahna O'Reilly plays a cold, fearful young mother who seems to want no connection with her own child; utterly dependent on her black maid, she is also terrified that others will find out how incompetent she is at pretty much everything.

But the dark heart of the movie is Hilly Holbrook, played powerfully by Bryce Dallas Howard. Here is where The Help rises above the normal cheap-villain treatment of white racism.

Usually, racism is portrayed as being a matter of pure malice, but The Help digs a little deeper. Hilly is evil, yes, but her racism is merely one symptom of a compulsion to control other people and keep them down.

Hilly uses racism to control, not only black women, but also all the white women in her orbit. Anyone who threatens Hilly's dominance is her enemy. Thus she puts her own curmudgeonly mother, played wonderfully by Sissy Spacek, in an institution because she only laughs when Hilly is humiliated.

This is the thing that many black people misunderstand in their assessment of white people. Racism does not cause evil: Evil causes racism.

That is, the people who are most committed to humiliating and oppressing blacks are also committed to humiliating and oppressing whites -- which is why they are able to get so many weaker-willed and more-fearful whites to go along with them.

Racism becomes their tool of choice, but their goal is complete dominance of others.

To blacks of that era it looked as if whites were united against them -- and it was true. But many whites were deeply uncomfortable with the system and glad when it ended -- they went along because it was too hard to do otherwise.

Great evils are almost always driven by a few dedicated individuals, who prey upon the fear and weakness of others to give the illusion of unity in their "cause."

And when the relatively few people who are committed to evil are neutralized, their supposedly united army of allies quite often evaporate.

Today, racism is so utterly unfashionable in most of white society that evil people have to find other "causes" to exploit in order to gain supremacy. Evil people have not decreased in number or changed their methods; they simply use different excuses for seeking to oppress whole classes of people in the name of some supposedly noble cause.

The result is a movie that, far from being the normal noble-whites-save-the-black-people treatment of the Civil Rights movement, is an intelligent -- yet highly entertaining -- exploration of the way evil actually works in the world.

While the movie makes some changes in the story that first appeared in the novel The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, they consist mostly of simplifying peripheral incidents that would simply take too much time to explain.

Writer and Director Tate Taylor, a reformed actor, has achieved something extraordinary and fine. Though the film might look like a "chick flick" or a "black flick," it transcends any attempt to pigeonhole it.

Men will enjoy this movie every bit as much as women. Whites will find it as illuminating and satisfying as blacks. Young people will enjoy it as much as old ones, and vice-versa.

Basically, the audience for this movie is "humans."

And after a long drought, this is a film that actually looks like a legitimate contender for great-movie status. The kind that you can watch more than once.

The kind that, if it wins an Oscar, you're actually glad.

Best movie of the year so far, in my opinion.


We've owned a lot of tables over the years, and without boring you with the details, let me just say that by the time we replaced each of our previous dining tables, I was happy to see it go.

We're not dining-room people. When we have guests for dinner, we all sit in our eat-in kitchen, so that we who are preparing the food are not isolated from the group consuming it.

(The space called "dining room" on our houseplan has a piano in the middle of it. We have our priorities.)

But a few years ago, in a furniture store in Williamsburg, we found a table that is, in a word, perfect. For us, anyway.

So when it got some nicks in the surface and other signs of age, we did not eagerly go out looking for a replacement.

Instead, we began looking for a way to refinish the tabletop so we could keep it in service.

It happened that Jeff Hughes, an art teacher we knew at Weaver Center, had recently changed careers. To indulge his love of working with furniture, he took on a franchise with Furniture Medic.

So we asked him to estimate what it would take to get our table back to new condition. The quote he gave us seemed right and we went ahead.

For the past month or so, we've been eating off a card table; our friends and other guests have been understanding on the few occasions when we entertained, because the weather was always good and we ate on the patio or scattered around the living room.

We just got the table back and it was worth the cost (which was quite reasonable, by the way -- far less than replacing the table would have been).

Not only did Hughes perfectly match the color of the table leaves, he also achieved a finish more lustrous than the original.

His work was so excellent that I thought it was worth passing the word to those who have a piece of furniture they want restored to slightly-better-than-original condition.

Furniture Medic by Jeff Hughes can be reached at fmbyjh at mindspring.com, or by telephone at 336-404-1471. (Of course you must replace the word "at" with "@" to send an email -- I wrote it as I did so that spammer programs can't mindlessly scoop up the email address and overwhelm him with trashmail.)


There are all kinds of anthologies of science fiction short stories, but in creating Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction, editor Leigh Ronald Grossman set out to create a book that contains excellent samplings from the entire history of sci-fi.

The result is a phonebook-sized volume (just under a thousand pages), printed in such tiny type that, while I managed to read for an hour with just my bifocals, I had to stop several times to puzzle out a word.

Next time, I'll be using a magnifying glass as I work my way down the columns.

I'm honored that a story of mine was included -- though I'm also amused that the one they selected was "Dogwalker," a story I wrote merely to prove that "Cyberpunk" was such an easy trick that anyone could do it. The fact is that I ended up caring about the story and it's one of my best.

Mine isn't the only untypical story Grossman picked, but the overall effect of the selections is astonishingly good. The intention is for this book to be used as a textbook in literature classes, so between the stories there are essays by scholars, critics, and writers in the field on many different topics.

Next time I teach a course in science fiction literature, this is the textbook I'll be using. It's also the resource I'll recommend for anyone who wants to learn to write in the genre, and needs to know it from its roots on up.


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