Stories are vehicles for vision. They are dust rags and power-washers for the silt that settles in our souls. When we listen to a story, we travel along the line of vision that the author, or poet, or director creates for us, and come to see things anew. Our vision is renewed: we see things more clearly as they are.
Our best storytellers assume a prophetic role in the way that they burn off cobwebs of self-deceit and take ice picks to narrow apertures of vision; with their words, metaphors, characterization – tools kept handy – they widen our perspective that we might better comprehend all that life encompasses. Story, good story, combats our reductive tendencies.
The Help is a film about the truth-telling power of story, the kind of imaginative corrective that can be enacted when another’s story is told well. Eugenia, “Skeeter,” is the prophetic voice in the movie as she speaks against the habitual and not-so-subtle racism of Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s through a collection of memoirs. She is the mouthpiece for a community of black maids, writing their unique stories of service, humiliation, humor, and love, all the while giving readers in general, and Mississipians in particular, a fuller sense of the humanity of these women.
The maids were members of an ongoing tradition of service to white owners that extends back to the days of slavery, and attitudes had changed surprisingly little since the Emancipation Proclamation a century before. Blacks were falling victim to the habitual reduction of people to property.
Wendell Berry writes that, “We treat people, places, and things according to the way that we perceive them, and literature influences our perceptions.” Skeeter’s human, humble act of storytelling subverts the prominent, reductive vision of the southern culture, and though the film does not conclude in a tidy way, the rest of the Civil Rights story looms large.
Empathy for blacks in America was ultimately cultivated through attention to their humanness, an empathy that can begin only with well-told stories of people.