Have you ever sent a loved son on vacation and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son – lynched? – Mamie Bradley, Emmet Till’s mother. Racial injustice has been a prevalent issue for centuries, and in twentieth-century Mississippi, segregation, inequality, and discrimination ran rampant, as represented in Tate Taylor’s The Help. Treatment of African-Americans as disposable objects was a common sentiment at the time, the epitome of social injustice being summarised perfectly in the torture and murder of Emmet Till.
Emmet Till was a 14-year-old boy visiting relatives in Mississippi from Chicago. Like the playful, mischievous teenager he was, Till wolf-whistled Carolyn Bryant in her corner store, meaning it as a sort of cheeky compliment. A few days later, J.W Milam and Roy Bryant, the owner of the store and husband to Carolyn drove off with Emmet. Three days later he was found dead with one eye gouged out and his head crushed in; identifiable only by his initial ring. At first the public, both whites, and blacks were horrified. When Mamie Bradley, Emmet’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, it was the first time the public had seen, with their own eyes, the terrible brutality that blacks endured. Much of the African-American community demanded, “something be done in Mississippi now.” After a four-day court case, and a one-hour deliberation, the jurors delivered a “not guilty” verdict. One juror even said later in an interview this was only because they “stopped to have a soda” (Brunner). Just months later, protected by double jeopardy, Roy Bryant and J.W Milam confessed to the horrible act. These two men who tortured, defiled, and murdered an innocent, young boy, who just so happened to be unlucky enough to be born with a darker shade of skin, got off scot-free and went on to live long lives.
Despite this tragic injustice, it was one of the major events that spurred the civil rights movement. Not one hundred days later, Rosa Parks would refuse to sit in the back of the bus. The lynching of Emmet Till helped to provoke the civil rights movement in the 60s, which is represented in Tate Taylor’s movie, The Help.
The Help (2011), a feature film based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, brings to light the atrocious maltreatment of African-Americans, focusing on the social unrest and eventual civil rights movement in 1960s Mississippi.
One of the maids, Yule Mae asks Hilly, her employer for a $75 loan (which at the time may have been a lot of money) to cover the rest of her boys’ college fees. When Hilly refuses, telling Yule Mae that she is doing her a favor by forcing her to “come up with it on [her] own”, Yule steals a ruby ring she finds while vacuuming, intending to sell it to make up the rest of the money. The next day, as she steps off the bus, two white police officers forcefully arrest Yule Mae. With a medium tracking shot, the camera smoothly shows the progression of her unrest as she becomes more and more uncomfortable the closer she gets to the police car. This creates a juxtaposition between the uneasy, rough emotion portrayed by Yule Mae, and the smooth motion of the camera.
Employing the Rule of Thirds technique, Yule Mae is aligned on the left-hand side of the screen, and a shallow depth of field is used so Aibileen can be seen blurred out in the background, providing a reaction to complement Aunjanue Ellis’ (Yule Mae) primary performance. Screaming, her body pressed against the cruiser, the camera tilts up to avoid displaying the gruesome act of Yule Mae being silenced with a baton, leaving the audience to connect the dots on their own. The audience is shown Hilly looking pretentious, sitting in her car, watching from across the road – inferring that Hilly reported Yule Mae for stealing the ring. Because she was friends with the judge’s wife, she ensured that Yule Mae received the maximum sentence; instead of staying in the penitentiary for the regular six months, she would end up serving four years in prison. In a tragic irony, her court fine equals what she and her husband had saved for the boys’ tuition.
Though not quite to the same extent, both Emmet Till and Yule May were wrongfully and excessively punished for their actions. Both cases exemplify the utter advantage the whites have; they can simply treat the blacks however they deem appropriate and suffer zero repercussions.
Just as Mamie Bradley’s courage inspired others to speak out and spurred the civil movement, after the unjust actions towards Yule Mae, the other maids are now more than willing to tell their stories. Stockett uses this as a storytelling device to steer the direction of the plot.
Through the horrific circumstances of Emmet Till’s injustice, and the storytelling of The Help, lessons are being passed down through generations, and interwoven into school curricula around the globe. Yet, no matter the amount of education, and the word being spread, societal prejudice and racism remain real issues. Only through the courageous actions and sacrifices of people like Mamie Bradley and even the fictional character, Yule Mae, will society ever be able to move forward; overcoming the zealous prejudice that has plagued humankind for centuries.