By LEWIS BEALE
I read The Help shortly before I saw the movie, at the insistence of my wife, who thought I'd really enjoy it.
She was right. I thought it was what critics call a real page turner. I became caught up with the distinct voices of Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. I thought author Kathryn Stockett did a good job describing the bond between black maids and the white children they raise, as well as how that bond is broken when the children come of age and buy into a racist Southern culture. I also appreciated how Stockett set her story within a context of change and violence, bringing in the murders of Medgar Evers and John Kennedy, the lunch counter sit-ins, and the March on Washington.
I also appreciated the humor in the book “ can you say ˜The Terrible Awful? “ and Stockett's depiction of a Southern Junior League culture that I knew nothing about (I grew up in Philadelphia).
I know some people have objected to the novel because it shows a white person as the driving force in the civil rights movement, someone who practically forces cowed black women to speak out for themselves. In this respect, at least one critic has compared it to the ludicrous film Mississippi Burning, in which white FBI agents doggedly pursue the killers of three civil rights workers, a concept made especially ridiculous given J. Edgar Hoover's noted antipathy towards Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
But the way I see it, Stockett wasn't writing a novel about the civil rights movement, or trying to make some grand statement. She was taking her own experience as a white woman growing up in Mississippi with a beloved black caretaker, and using it as the starting point for a story of humanity and courage. And make no mistake about it “ if nothing else, The Help emphasizes how dangerous it could be for these women to tell their stories. For Skeeter, it would mean social ostracism. For the black maids, it could mean being fired, and much, much worse. Ultimately, the novel is about profiles in courage in the belly of the racist beast.
As for the movie, I found it problematic. It's always difficult to cut a novel down to screenplay size, and when that book is an incident-filled 544 pages, you can imagine the problems writer-director Tate Taylor must have had. Because of this, I found the first half of the movie, which is heavy with exposition, to be rather sluggish. Taylor, who has directed only one feature and one short film prior to this (he's Stockett's oldest friend, which is how he got the directing assignment for The Help), has a lot to learn about pacing, visual style and narrative drive. Also, because of the cutting necessary to shape the book into a movie with a reasonable running time (the film runs 146 minutes), I got the impression that it will play better for those who've already read the novel.
Luckily, along about when Aibileen signs onto Skeeter's project, the film picks up steam, and barrels onward to its conclusion. Overall, the acting is excellent, with Viola Davis as Aibileen and Bryce Dallas Howard as the manipulative racist Hilly Holbrook being particular standouts. Oscar winner Sissy Spacek has a few terrific comedic scenes, Octavia Spencer is a real crowd pleaser as the mouthy Minny, and Emma Stone commands the screen as Skeeter, a woman struggling against a repressive sexual and racial environment.
My biggest problem with the film, as it was with the novel, is its rather rosy ending, a finale that is even more hearts and flowers onscreen than it is in the book. The most realistic of these endings involves Skeeter, who will move to New York, take an editorial job with Harper & Row, and become a biggie in the publishing industry – or the next Carson McCullers.
But the film, unlike the novel, refuses to mention the many maids who were identified and lost their jobs because they spoke out. Only Aibileen is shown losing her position, yet it's seen as some sort of triumph, since she'll retire to the writing life. The fact is, she's a black woman. In Mississippi. In 1964. What are her options?
And Hilly? We're supposed to believe that she's lost her social standing, and become a pariah. Yet my guess is she'll rationalize her partial fall from grace as a conspiracy involving radical white integrationists, ˜Nigras,' and ˜Jew York' book editors. Really, how far can she fall? She's wealthy and white. In Mississippi. In 1964.
The Help' leaves viewers with a good sniffle and a touchy-feely glow. It's manipulative in the best sense, an honest and sincere attempt to show black-white cooperation and bravery during a dangerous time. But it's also a bit too hopeful, given the time and setting. It's a long, long way from maids speaking out anonymously to a racially just society. That's a point The Help fails to drive home.
Lewis Beale writes about film and the film industry for a number of publications, including Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Washington Post.
MyBrownBaby contributor Kia Morgan Smith did a kick-butt profile of Viola Davis and the resistance she faced in Hollywood for agreeing to play a maid. Check it out at Kia’s personal blog, CincoMom.com.
And please come back to MyBrownBaby tomorrow, when I’ll be writing about my personal experience working as “the help” in high school and college.