One of 2011’s biggest surprise hit films has been “The Help,” based on Kathryn Stockett’s surprise hit 2009 novel of the same name about the racism faced by black maids in 1960s Mississippi. Aided by a remarkably strong cast, it skillfully blends comedy and drama as it depicts an aspiring young woman journalist’s appalled reaction to the hypocrisy of her childhood friends, now the leaders of polite local society, and the demeaning way they treat their family servants. The film chronicles her efforts to convince the maids to tell her their stories for publication, and the results when the book appears.
“The Help” is a crowd-pleasing, feel-good fictionalization of a woman’s struggle to prove her own value in a male-dominated culture while simultaneously revealing the personal effects of racial discrimination on those forced to live with it during the height of the civil rights movement. It becomes obvious during the course of the plot that the determination of individual people who are considered negligible by those in charge is what causes change to happen—not the outside agitation by professional activists.
In real life, this concept of helping people to help themselves is something that inspired Myles Horton, a young man from the mountains of Tennessee later described as a “hillbilly radical.” He established the Highland Folk School in 1932, where people black and white could come together to discuss their problems and ways they might be able to change their situation. Simply teaching illiterate but intelligent adults to read and write was a major step. Now called the Highlander Research and Education Center and about to celebrate its 80th anniversary, it continues to hold workshops and provide support for people seeking social justice in labor issues, civil rights, and protection from corporate pollution. Highlander has been attended by such notable figures as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Paul Wellstone.
In 1980, inspired by Horton, filmmaker Lucy Massie Phenix decided to make a film she hoped would convince ordinary people that they truly had the power to bring about changes for the good of themselves, their neighbors, and the world. The result was finally finished five years later, “You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South,” a 1985 documentary that briefly outlines the history of the Highlander Center, then uses interviews and news footage to tell the stories of several people, mostly women, whose experiences at Highlander motivated them to take action that resulted in a positive effect.
Young black women Bernice Robinson and Bernice Johnson Reagon each found ways to contribute their talents to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s in South Carolina and Georgia. Black mattress factory worker Bill Saunders came to the realization that poverty crossed racial lines and helped organize oppressed hospital workers black and white in 1969, and went on to run a community radio station. Becky Simpson overcame her lack of formal education to create awareness of the devastation strip mining was causing communities in Cranks Creek, Kentucky, and to get some land reclamation started. Rural Tennessee housewives Gail Story and MaryLee Rogers gave up their soap operas to become instrumental in organizing the community to stop the trucking of hazardous chemicals to their local garbage dump.
Next Tuesday, October 18th, “You Got to Move” makes its debut on DVD, transferred from the filmmaker’s original internegative with an impressive selection of bonus features. One of the best is the deleted sequence of E. D. Nixon describing how he planned the famous Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott after the Rosa Parks incident. Another is a substantial excerpt from the PBS Bill Moyers’ Journal interview with Myles Horton form 1981. There’s also a new interview with filmmaker Lucy Massie Phenix about the film, and a new interview with Bill Saunders made for this disc, as well as an update on all the people featured in the film. In addition there’s a brief recording of some of the activities at the 75th anniversary of Highlander in 2007.
“You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South” may be an inspiration to anyone frustrated with a sense of helplessness when confronted by all the political, corporate, and legal red tape necessary to overcome to address any issue. It can also be a revelation on how much social change has actually come from relatively anonymous average people rather than high-profile activist reformers. The DVD is being released by Milliarium Zero, a special distribution arm created specifically for films with strong socio-political content by the small independent company Milestone Film and Video. If the disc can’t be found in local stores, it can be ordered directly from Milestone/Milliarium at http://www.yougottomove.com or by calling toll-free 1-800-603-1104.