The book-club favorite about African-American women working as domestics in the early Civil Rights era South has been lovingly turned into a film that like its source material engages with its sensitive subject matter humbly and sincerely.
Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and was devoted to her family’s “help,” which inspired her first novel, the story of Skeeter, an awkward girl just out of college (Emma Stone) who persuades the women who work as domestics to tell her their stories for a book. This is a minefield of an idea, which may be one reason the book was rejected 60 times. We are rightly sensitive about the presumption of a white woman acting as interpreter or, even worse, as liberator. And Stockett had her African-American characters speaking in dialect. There can be no better proof that we have still not figured out how to handle these issues than this summer’s cover of Vanity Fair with a bikini-clad photo of Stone, describing her on the inside of the magazine as the “star” of “The Help.” She is not the star, just as her character is not the author of the book she produces. She is the ingenue. The stars of the story are the maids played by Viola Davis (Aibileen Clark) and Octavia Spencer (Minny Jackson). Entertainment Weekly did a much better job. All three actresses appear on the cover, with a headline: “How do you turn a beloved, racially charged book into a moving, funny film? Very carefully.”
That is thanks to Stockett’s closest childhood friend, Tate Taylor, who grew up with her in Jackson, who optioned the book before it was published, and who wrote and directed the film, and who insisted it be shot in Mississippi and that it reflect the South he knew.
Skeeter is accepted by the ladies who run things in Jackson, but she does not fit in. She is not married and hopes for something beyond bridge club luncheons and dinner-dances. She applies for a job at the local newspaper and is hired to do the household hints column. Since she knows nothing about cooking, cleaning, or laundry, she asks her friend’s maid, Aibeleen, for help. As they talk, she becomes more aware of the bigotry around her and of her own failure to oppose it. She begins to wonder about the lives of the women who raise the children and feed the families in her community but are not permitted to use the bathrooms that they scrub. A New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) encourages her to collect their stories for a ground-breaking book. Skeeter asks Aibeleen and Minny to help her, knowing that she may be putting them at risk of losing their jobs, or worse. Privately, Skeeter works on the book. Quietly, and then less quietly, she works to oppose a local initiative to require all homes to build separate “colored” bathrooms.
The woman behind the initiative is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), ostensibly Skeeter’s best friend and the alpha girl in their community. It is less a matter of prejudice than a struggle for power, but that just makes Skeeter’s refusal to go along more inflammatory. Meanwhile, Hilly has fired Minny, who goes to work for Celia (Jessica Chastain), a pretty blonde from the lower class who does not realize that she is being frozen out by the society ladies of the town. And the more Hilly feels threatened, the more the pushes for her “sanitation” initiative.
Taylor said that Greenwood, Mississippi is closer to what Jackson looked like in the 60’s than Jackson is now and the period detail pulls us into the story. Octavia Spencer, playing a part she helped to inspire, does not let Minny become a caricature and Viola Davis gives another richly layered performance as the quieter Aibeleen. If Howard makes Hilly a little too shrill (and the ending more upbeat than would have been possible in that era) it is understandable given the changing times. No one would believe today that such a short time ago, blatant virulence could be so casual, which is why the conversations this movie will prompt are so important. And Stockett deserves credit for her care in acknowledging moments of generosity and affection on all sides in spite of the restrictions of the era.
This is an involving drama with respect for its characters that has some important points to make about race and gender, about the past that still haunts us, about friendship and passion, and most of all about the transformative power of stories, the ones we tell and the ones we listen to. As Douglas Adams wrote:
It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.
“The Help” does not pretend to be perfect, but it is an honorable step forward and one of the most heartwarming dramas of the year.
Parents should know that the themes of racism and sexism in this movie may be disturbing or shocking, especially to those who are not familiar with the Jim Crow laws of the pre-Civil Rights, pre women’s rights era. It also includes sexual references, potty humor, some strong language, a graphic miscarriage, drinking, smoking, and some very sad (offscreen) deaths including the murder of Medgar Evers.
Family discussion: Whose story would you like to know more about? Who should hear your story? Ask the older generation for their recollections about the Civil Rights era.
If you like this, try: The book by Kathryn Stockett and films like “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “The Long Walk Home.” Families should also watch the superb documentary series, “Eyes on the Prize.”