The Help Movie: Why Haven’t White People Been Killed Yet?

The Help Movie Viola Davis

Let me preface by saying: I have not read Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help.

Count it against me in the “I can’t believe you’re a librarian and haven’t read that” list – along with Harry Potter and the Twilight series.

Therefore, I went into this movie completely blind.  I expected a lot, partially because, even though the book was published three years ago, its phenomenal reviews are still fresh in my mind.  I counted the weeks that her book remained on the New York Times Bestseller list – patrons were beside themselves as they waited for their reserved copies, pushing each other out of the way and clawing at the eyes of their opponents as they wrestled for the single remaining “free” copy our library kept for patrons to take on a “first come, first served” basis.  Well, maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that, but you get the point.

This book was popular.

And the film adaptaion seemed to followed suit.  Like the novel, some brought up the so-called controversy of the story – how could a white woman possibly inhabit the minds and souls of a bunch of African-American maids?  Right, because authors have never created characters outside their race (see also, Huckleberry Finn).

Doing a quick Google search will also bring you to the sometimes humorous parody of the novel’s cover:

White People Solve Racism The Help

Okay, it’s kind of funny, but I can’t help but feel that it’s because Stockett is a woman that she received this kind of harsh criticism.  After all, Steven Spielberg, a Jewish director, led Daniel Day-Lewis to his Oscar-winning portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.  As far as we know, Spielberg wasn’t privy to the exact turn of events surrounding the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution by the House of Representatives.  Was he?

Although I haven’t read the book, I happen to like Stockett already, for her boldness but also for her honesty and frankness about how she never claimed to understand what it felt like to be an African American woman in Mississippi in the early 1960s.  “But trying to understand,” she says, “is vital to our humanity.”

Amen to that.

As usual, I will review the good and bad points of the film:

The Good:

Subtlety:  I think the movie certainly succeeded in depicting the menacing racism and the underyling terror facing African Americans in the 1960s.  The movie is set during the summer, and between the sweltering heat and the disgust that a group of wealthy white women felt towards their “help” is absolutely palpable, like a mammoth elephant in the room.   We watch the sweat bead off the foreheads of the help, confined to their itchy, long-sleeved uniforms as their owners bosses sipped iced tea in silk sundresses.

As these women attend tea parties and various charitable functions (the irony of which is not meant to be lost on viewers), they insist that their help use different bathrooms than their families do.  This from the group of women who allow their children to be raised by these maternal strangers who, of course, are more warm and caring to their children than their own parents.  There are subtle ways that the bosses’ neglect for their children is shown: the way one mother shuns her baby for being “fat,” or the way she leaves her child laying in its crib in a dirty diaper overnight so that she doesn’t have to change her.  We are able to witness the larger, obvious racism because it is spelled out in these tiny, cruel actions.

the help female cast

Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain: These ladies were outstanding.  Emma Stone takes on the young, white journalist Skeeter Phelan with grace — she is optimistic and open, but not overly so.  Bryce Dallas Howard, by contrast, plays Skeeter’s foil, Hilly Holbrook, with so much unabashed smugness that you’re just dying for someone to pull a Jerry Springer hair-pulling assault on her.  I think her best scene is when her maid, Yule Mae Davis, asks for a loan for her son’s college tuition, and Hilly refuses.  Her lines, delivered with contentment, just make your blood boil:

Yule Mae Davis: Well, now we’re faced with having to choose which son can go if we don’t come up with the money. Would you consider giving us a loan? I’d…I’d work everyday for free till it was paid off.
Hilly Holbrook: That’s not working for free, Yule Mae. That’s paying off a debt.
Yule Mae Davis: Yes, ma’am.
Hilly Holbrook: As a Christian, I’m doin’ you a favor. See, God don’t give no charity to those who are well and able. You need to come up with this money on your own. Okay?
Yule Mae Davis: Yes, ma’am.
Hilly Holbrook: You’ll thank me one day.

Chastain is fabulous.  I almost didn’t recognize Jessica Chastain, who adds sincerity to the cliched, Marilyn Monroe-looking social outcast Celia Foote.  She enlists the partnership of Millie (Octavia Spencer) to learn proper home-making skills, and at first, we credit her overall obliviousness to the fact that she doesn’t treat Millie like a second-class citizen, only to find out that she does, in fact, have an open and color-blind mind.

Finally, there is Viola Davis, who plays maid Aibileen Clark, and is the clear standout of the film.  Her eyes convey the century-old pain of her kind — the oppression that has become so familiar it is almost expected.  The empathy that Aibileen shows for the white children she tends for and raises is almost outstanding, especially after we learn that her own son died in front of her eyes after his white employee left him wounded and abandoned outside the hospital.  I can’t even begin to think how many people are represented by Aibileen’s character — generations who kept their mouths shut and somehow led lives of grace and dignity when everyone around them kept trying to take it away.  It’s her character who begins the catalyst for change in the movie by sharing her story, and hers who concludes the film by making a silent vow to keep writing.

The Not-So Good

Octavia Spencer The Help

Octavia Spencer, Screenplay, Direction: I think I must be in the minority with this one, since everyone raved about Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Minnie Jackson, who I see as the black, female version of Aibileen’s sassy gay friend, if she had one.  I understand that some of my criticism shouldn’t necessarily be with Spencer, but with the film’s writing and direction as well.  I just thought there were too many token “black” moments with Spencer that sugar-coated the severity of the plotline.  Even the whole “terrible awful” stunt that she pulled on Hilly Holbrook was vile — not only was it disgusting, but it completely diminished her character, in my opinion.  I mean yes, comic relief is a powerful tool, and even I laughed at the scene when Minnie vacuumed the large, frightening and tacky taxidermied bear in her owners’ bosses’ living room.   But other lines, like, “fried chicken just tend to make you feel better about life” made me do an eye-roll.  I mean, why not just cover her in maple syrup so she could be Aunt Jemima?  I felt the same way about the portrayal of Constantine, the maid who raised Skeeter.  Her character’s black wisdom could not have been more saccharin-sweet.  But I get it — this is the age of Mad Men — cultural stereotypes abound.  It’s not The Watermelon Woman.  Still, I think other films better represented this period in time (I think of Fried Green Tomatoes, another novel-turned-film, although that was set a bit earlier in time).  But since I haven’t read the book, I can’t say whether or not the tone of the film, or even certain lines, were taken from the novel, or if the film succeeded either way in trying to match it.

Overall, I’d say this is a 6/10.  Good family film for a Friday night when you’re beat from the week and don’t want anything too heavy or dark.


Categories: Reviews

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4 replies

  1. Good review. The cast is great, no doubt about that, but the story does go on a tad bit long. It got to a point of where I felt like I was watching the Lord of the Rings version of African-American slaves in the South. It kept going on and on and on.

  2. I don’t agree with a lot of things in your review and I did read the book. I enjoyed seeing the characters come to life in the movie. You should read it now that it’s readily available, especially to a librarian. I thought the relationship between Celia and Minnie was touching. Celia had no friends because she married Hilly’s ex boyfriend–Hilly made sure every woman in town rejected Celia. Millie couldn’t get a job anywhere in town –also as a result of crossing Hilly. That’s when she turned to Celia who gave her a job. In the book, Millie helped Celia when she had a miscarriage and was there as an a friend. As much of a friend as she could be during that period in history. Minnie wasn’t a caricature. Re the chicken–she was just expressing a heartfelt thought. Why pin another meaning on it? I liked both the book and the movie.

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