By Sandra Swanson
As the cast/ and crew of The Help recently stepped on stage to accept their SAG awards, I was reminded of the night I went to see this film with my mother. It was a weeknight and we were the only two people in the theater. We took turns taking photos of our tiny bodies in that huge, empty room, laughing and amazed that we might be the only two people in our entire zip code that wanted to see the showing of The Help. Click, FLASH! goes our camera.
Soon a little woman shuffled in. She sat a few rows ahead of us. She was alone and dressed in black. It took us a moment to figure out that she was a nun. Mom, who has always been afraid of being the only person in a large space, seemed instantly comforted by her arrival...and by the fact that she was a nun. Soon, the door opened and more people walked in. It was three black women. They went past us, walked a few rows up and took their seats. Moments later, for an audience of six women, the movie started.
What a film. It made me feel so much. Made me question everything. What I am today. What I would have been back then (in the 60's, in a time that lines were drawn and sides were taken). Early in the film, when the heroine began to reveal herself, I leaned over to mom and said, "I think I would have been like her." I felt funny saying it...a bit arrogant...as though I wanted to align myself with her at the start...take her side. Take their side. As though it needed to be said. At that moment. Outloud.
As the movie was ending and our true heroine walks off into her future, we stayed to watch - just sitting for a moment to soak up that long and telling story. As the credits started rolling, the three black women who had been sitting behind us, made their way down the aisle. They paused near our seats to watch the names cascade down the screen. Just as I was preparing to process any emotions I might have about them...about us...about how different our lives and histories could have been...during crueler more horrible times...something happened.
Mom stood up, opened her arms and hugged one of the women. All I could do was watch, as her tiny size 2 Caucasian body wrapped itself around that perfectly African-American perfect stranger.
I was horrified.
I wanted to disappear into that greasy, nasty cinema-floor carpet and just pretend I wasn't there. I certainly didn't want to be sitting next to the cute, blonde, well-dressed senior citizen who thought that it was "okay" to just hug the first black women she saw after watching a racially-charged film. As though, somehow, that hug...her hug...could apologize for all we'd just seen. For all we continue to see. The woman she was hugging seemed surprised, but gracious.
I wanted to grab my mom's hand (as though she was my five-year-old) pull her out of that theater, wag my finger in her face and say, "We don't do that. We don't try to apologize for centuries of wrong by one single act that makes us feel better about ourselves." But instead, I just sat there, waiting for everyone to leave, hoping those women weren't laughing hysterically (or worse, disapprovingly) at the two white girls inside who just tried to hug them as the credits rolled!
It was a challenging moment for me. Yet, Mom seemed unphased. She commented about the movie. How good it was. How strong the acting had been. She asked if I'd read the book.
As we walked outside, I saw the women pulling away from the curb; their car heading towards us. I imagined them shaking their heads at us...questioning our motives...our past...our ancestors. Mom strolled behind; commenting on the weather and how warm the night felt. I just wanted to get in the car. I felt embarrassed. I walked quickly; my eyes fixed on the pavement.
Then, as the women drove by, they all rolled down their windows (three windows in total) and waved at us, wished us a good night and shined beautiful, happy, genuine smiles in our direction.
And all of a sudden, I was a little girl. And she was my mother. Teaching me...reminding me that emotion is okay; in all its unexpected, unpredictable shapes and sizes. And it's usually welcomed and safe to share with others.
I'm still not entirely sure what the "correct" reaction to this film or films like this should be. I can't say I'll adopt hugging perfect strangers as a way to process my emotions - but apparently, it works for my mother.