|From left, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in a scene from The Help|
I wrote the headline for this post before I saw the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s powerful 2009 novel The Help about the lives of African American maids living in Jim Crow South. Before I stepped foot in the theater I was sure there was no way the movie could do the book justice. But I was in for a surprise.
Though I do believe the book is superior, the film in no way falls flat thanks to an outstanding cast. Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s, The Help tells the story of Skeeter Phelan, a Southern society girl and aspiring writer who decides to interview black maids about the good, bad, and ugly of working for prominent Southern families. Skeeter is smart and sharp, yet kind and vulnerable, and Emma Stone shines in the role.
Aibileen (Viola Davis), Skeeter’s best friend’s housekeeper, is the first to open up. Aibileen eventually persuades her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) to join the collaboration. Davis, with her silent strength, and Spencer, with her audacious sass, make a perfect pair. But Spencer steals the show and I hope gets the attention of the Academy.
Skeeter is motivated to do the interviews in part because of frustration with her old friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who’s undeniably racist, though she seems to seriously think she’s simply preserving racial harmony by insisting that white families have a separate outdoor bathroom for their black maids to use. “Separate but equal,” she proudly chants in one scene. Howard is remarkable and I found myself hating Hilly’s character even more than before after watching the film.
On the other hand Skeeter’s overbearing, controlling mother (played by Allison Janney) actually becomes more likable in the film thanks to a few story line changes, changes I actually didn’t mind because they also made the character more realistic.
As strange as this might sound, my primary complaint with the movie is that it made me laugh too much. A black maid’s decision to share stories about her white employers, stories that would go on to be published in a book, could be fatal. And Skeeter nearly loses everyone dear and near to her as she’s trying to make this book a reality. In the book we’re constantly reminded of how dangerous what these women were doing would have been in that time period, so much so that you can feel their fear leaping off the page as you read. The seriousness of this issue wasn’t highlighted enough in the film and was diluted by too much comic relief.
That said, I still recommend that folks read the book and watch the movie. I know there’s been some controversy surrounding the story concerning whether or not it exploits and misrepresents Southern black women in the 1960s. I understand the arguments, but personally I don’t feel the book or film is at all celebrating this time period as “the good ol’ days” but instead both are seeking to expose how racism and segregation limited so many black women.
One complaint voiced has been that, besides the attention given to Medgar Evers (the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP), The Help ignores the work of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. But I appreciate that, though The Help is fiction, it reminds us that there were people rebelling and taking a stand in smaller ways that perhaps didn’t make national news, but still made a difference.