The Truth Shall Set You Free

Many people watch movies for entertainment. I don’t. To me, a movie, especially if based on a true story, is another way to learn something important.

If it’s incredibly good, I’ll watch it 20-30 times, if not more. Seeing a movie once, a person misses so many small, important things – statements about life, or situations, that really can make a vast difference in perspective in “real” life. A movie is a moving book, and I usually keep a notebook and at least one pen near – so I can capture that statement I missed the first ten times I watched it, or a situation I wasn’t paying attention to because the microwave popcorn was burning.

I believe this is why film makers, directors, actors and actresses work so hard at their craft. Like everyone, they want to make a difference, they want to teach. Who can forget when “E.T.” was dying from the government’s poking and prodding, and the kids get him in Elliott’s bicycle basket and Elliott gets him “home”? And no one will ever forget “Roots,” especially because it was made as a television series to reach the greatest audience they could, and everyone watched the horror of slavery in their living rooms.

Which brings me to the next book turned movie, one that everyone should watch 20-30 times, listen and learn from. “The Help,” originally a book and now a movie about the late ’50s, and ’60s, when the only jobs available to African American women were maid/housekeeper jobs, working for white families and raising white children — while their own children were left at home — for about 60 cents a week.

In the movie, all the maids get sick of their circumstances and Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young, hopeful journalist or novelist (she’s not sure) asks Aibileen (Viola Davis) to tell her story of what it is like to work for white families, raise white children, leaving her own children every day. It takes some convincing, but after a few incidents that deserve telling, Aibileen is convinced it is worth the risk, and recruits other maids to do the same. The book is sent to Harper and Row and published under a fictitious name, in a fictitious Mississippi town, with fictitious maids. The proceeds are divided up and each maid makes $46 from the overwhelming sales of “The Help.”

Of course, the outcome is Aibileen gets fired from her position, after being accused of stealing a silver spoon and two knives, a lie invented by her white employer. You see, every white woman knew every story and every maid that told it. Every white woman was completely embarrassed about their own behavior, and presumably, every maid in town experienced the same fate as Aibileen. In all her years of working, though, Aibileen, had raised 17 white children, made 60 cents a week, and was certainly hesitant to tell the truth about how her employers treated her, as well as how her friends (other maids) had been treated. But the Civil Rights movement was beginning, and it affected every aspect of African American life in the South, even the maids.

It is the last five minutes of the film, though, that are the most important. Aibileen, walking down the drive, crying because the child she loved and had taken care of for the last four years would be her last. With tears streaming down her face, she clutches her stomach and bends over with that pain that every human has experienced when their heart gets completely shattered.

She walks down the street, and you hear her thoughts: “God said to love our enemies. It hard to do. But it can start by tellin’ the truth. Ain’t no one ever ask me what it felt like to be me. And once I told the truth, I felt free. …”

My usual bed time, if you can call it that, is around 4 a.m. I’m a night person, so I watch a lot of movies, especially when the ABC Family Channel stops movies and becomes CBN, and all the other channels are preachers blowing people over to “heal” them while others are asking for money to “get your own miracle water too.” (When I’m really bored I flip through the preachers of late night television). I’m lucky, though. I’m a Mac person, and I have iTunes and every movie ever made at my disposal at any time.

It was this movie, “The Help,” though, that reminded me that writing — and my entire career as a journalist — is about telling the truth.

I’ve won three Associated Press awards in Op-Ed, and I’ve also gotten lots of hate mail, love mail and prayer-grams, too. That was all just part of the job. My son usually critiques movies. I write columns about movies, and how they portray life and what can we learn from them.

When I had to leave my last job because of an extraordinarily painful auto-immune disease that crippled me, and because of a surprise discovery of adrenal and lung cancer that I had been walking around with for five years, no one ever asked me what it felt like to be me. I never got to TELL what it felt like to be me, especially when the person that was supposed to love me until death left when I got sick, and blamed me for “taking all the joy away.” People just heard stories that were made up to justify the person that was supposed to love me until death but apparently made a 9-year mistake.

Friends that I thought were friends for life just disappeared. Two actually wrote me and said they didn’t want to be my friend at all anymore (those are great emails to get when you have cancer and your so-called partner has cheated on you). I felt I had been loyal to them. Given them jobs when I could. Given them shelter, if that’s what was needed. Or boyfriend advice for an entire summer for one.

Friendship, for me, means something precious. It means loyalty. It means I’ll do whatever I can. It means I won’t leave. But a smart gentleman pointed out to me that my definition was obviously not the definition of friendship for others, and that he had never seen someone as used and beaten by so many cruel and stupid people.

I cannot tell anyone what it was like being an African American maid in the 1960s, but I can tell you there is nothing more heartbreaking than friends of 10-plus years disappearing out of your life. It is so hard to live with excruciating pain that will not go away, no matter how many pills the doctor keeps trying, and that going without sleep for four days because your pain is so bad, is worse than any drug.

Eating pill after pill after pill is nauseating. Having poison pumped into your veins and blood pulled out is sickening and agonizing. I can also tell you it is utterly, horribly, terribly excruciating when you realize you made a huge mistake you can never correct, and let someone go that you should have never, ever let go. And, it is terrifying and horrific when your child is diagnosed with cancer at 22, and you are too sick and stuck in bed, unable to walk, to go and sit with him while he is poisoned day after day after day. My son had to carry his own cancer, as did I, neither of us strong enough to get to the other, and both of us truly betrayed during this time by too many people that should have never been in our lives.

See? Movies are life. Ain’t nobody asked what it has been like to be ME the last 15 years. Now I have had a chance to tell THE truth, not someone’s version or someone’s lies. And yes, Aibileen was right. Telling the truth IS freeing. It’s something humans hardly have the stomach for these days. But I highly recommend it, as well as watching or re-watching the movie, “The Help.”

Categories: Commentary