The Help (2011)

August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis commiserate in period drama 'The Help'

Adapted for the screen by Tate Taylor, based on the book by Kathryn Stockett

Directed by Tate Taylor

Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain

I chose not to read “The Help” before seeing the film. I was tempted, but I abstained from the literary version of this story, because I knew from prior experience that book to screen adaptations always leave something to be desired if you’re too intimate with the story. It would have bugged me knowing which details they changed in order to fit the run time or make the story more palatable for a film going audience.

Not knowing what was left out or homogenized, I was effectively moved, engrossed, enjoyed, satisfied and entertained by this fresh perspective on story telling for the civil rights movement. “The Help” is about a group of women in Mississippi in the early 60’s. Well-to-do housewives, their African-American maids and one Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, a college graduate and progressive who grew up with the house wives but is clearly nothing like them. She attends their brunches and well-to-do affairs with a sense of familial duty but clearly has more important fish to fry in the way of a career and advancing the civil rights movement in her own ways. Bryce Dallas Howard plays her (ostensibly) best friend Hilly Holbrook, queen of committees, party planning, events and pretty much any town social gathering. Like so many other wealthy whites in the area, her racist tendencies aren’t virulent so much as they are stoked in tradition and upbringing. She doesn’t see herself as racist- she sees herself as reasonable and realistic. Her fellow housewives take a similar approach.

Meanwhile, their maids sit in silent frustration, halfway accepting their circumstances out of fear, while making stilted half measures of their own to feel empowered, mostly by doing their own gossiping about their employers to each other on the occasion that they’re doubled up to work a party. There’s no question that the maids’ services amount to indentured servitude, with their wages hovering under 95 cents an hour and their duties extending to virtually all household tasks aside from a wife looking pretty and being treated like a queen. They raise the children and have excellent relationships with the little ones, even nearly growing to love their minor charges, all the while knowing these sweet white children will grow up to be spiteful, entitled racists just as their parents had and their grandparents and so on.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer represent the African-American house maids in the story. They play quiet, dutiful veterans of the industry. They have self-respect and their own community and are wise beyond their white counterparts in ways that only a life of hard work can give someone. Davis is a little older and more dignified in her efforts, while Spencer exhibits a stronger rebellious streak. Perhaps rebellious is the wrong word, as the rules they must abide by- such as taking bathroom breaks outside and not using the house bathrooms- are inhumane. However, as circumstances were, Spencer’s character is by definition rebellious.
Skeeter gets a job at the local paper. She’s given the unglamorous position of the new house cleaning advise columnist. She knows nothing about house hold duties- but the African-American maids do. So she sets about looking for basic tips from her friends’ domestic servants. Very quickly Skeeter’s ambition moves beyond ghost writing a column and into literary magnitudes, as she sees an idea for a book. She calls a New York publisher- a progressive Jewish woman- and pitches her on a book from the perspective of African-American maids about life in a white southern household. This kind of information is incendiary and tantamount to high treason within the highly segregated and racist community of Skeeter’s hometown. Without too much coaxing, Viola Davis reluctantly agrees to spill her guts, quickly pulling in Octavia Spencer for additional story telling fire power. Between their stories and Skeeter’s writing talents, they get the book written and published. Various stories balanced between horrifyingly racist and humorously ridiculous anecdotes come pouring out of the two women’s mouths, in between household chore lessons- such as Octavia’s secret that Crisco is cure-all for nearly every house maintenance malady and for proper fried chicken cooking.

Octavia eventually loses employment due to her rebellious ways and finds work with a kooky ostracized white woman, Celia Foote, played by rising newcomer Jessica Chastain, in bleach blonde poofy hair, dressed to the nines, situated in an old plantation outside of town with nothing to do all day. Celia isn’t so much a progressive person as she is too ditzy and caught up in her own eccentricities and neurosis to have time to be a xenophobe or elitist. She wears plunging neckline cleavage-heavy dresses to social events, if she gets in at all. Octavia teachers her how to clean a house and Celia inadvertently shows Celia that some rich white folk can be very kind, fair employers.

The book comes out and all hell breaks loose within the upper crust community, relatively speaking. People get their just desserts, good people triumph, bad people pout and racism is taken down a notch.

All in all, true or not, The Help has some sweet, altruistic notions and gives us a hopeful and milquetoast version of racism, a kind that’s unquestionably ugly, but also quite palatable and easily fixable. It’s not that these rich white women are racist, so much as they’re rich and elitist and the racism comes out of that. It’s not that the black maids are under educated or disenfranchised, it’s that things are just how they are and someone had to come along, buck the system and save the day. Again, these are all wonderfully altruistic and progressive notions, but the story unquestionably skips over the most ugly parts of the civil rights movement, except for a scraped knee and a reference to the murder of Medgar Evers making national news.

Emma Stone once again proves herself to be a valid rising star and lead actress with unconventional but still enjoyable good looks and charm. Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard look like each other’s doppelgangers and also once again prove themselves to be valuable new Hollywood assets .Octavia Spencer and Violet Davis gives exceptionally nuanced performances that don’t come around often in Hollywood and will no doubt get deserved awards consideration come the season.

Ultimately, The Help is not so much a false representation of a horrific struggle for equality, as it is a palatable lesson for beginners. It’s the kind of film that will appeal to people with weak stomachs or who are too young to withstand the brutality of more visceral retellings of history, such as ‘Mississippi Burning’ or ‘Ghosts of Mississippi’. Along those lines, ‘The Help’ could be retitled ‘Mississippi Watered Down: The 60’s”. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film or a sappy film. It’s none of those. There are very strong performances and lots of meaty scenes for the actors to dig their thespian claws into, but the overall film’s tone pulls its punch, when others in the genre normally go for the gut. If I were to blame anyone, it’d be executive producer Chris Columbus, who often presents watered down, family-friendly material. The book, by Kathryn Stockett, by all accounts gives a much more detailed and sullied description of events, not pulling its punches the way the film does. That doesn’t mean the film is bad, merely watered down like a weak iced tea, the kind any self-respecting southerner with real knowledge would disapprove of.

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