Thursday, August 18, 2011


First off, let me just come out and say that I didn’t read the best-selling novel that The Help is based on.   I’m not sure if the film does it justice, or how much it sticks to, or deviates from, the source material, so my impression of the story is just from watching the film.   I do know that the writer /director of the film (Tate Taylor) and the author of the novel (Kathryn Stockett) are very good friends who have known each other for quite some time, so my guess is that the film sticks as closely to the book as possible.

         At the film’s center we have Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a young, educated, white female returning home from college and ready to make a difference in the world.   She returns to her home of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s with the intention of landing a position as a journalist for the local paper, which she does.  Unfortunately, much to her chagrin, it’s for a domestic maintenance column in which she has to advise women on how to solve household dilemmas involving, mending, cooking and stain removal, none of which she has any amount of experience.   

        Skeeter, like her gaggle of childhood friends, was raised by a black maid who handled the domestic duties in her household.   Upon her return she learns that her beloved Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has mysteriously left her post and moved up north with her family.  To get help with the column she enlists the assistance of a friend’s maid, Abilene (Viola Davis), but soon after they begin Skeeter realizes she wants to tell a different story.  She wants to write about what it’s like for a black maid working in a white household in the Jim Crow era south.
            As a black person, I wanted to take issue with the fact that this story, about a specifically black experience, was written by a white person (in both incarnations), but the author of the novel, to my knowledge, had first hand experience being raised by a black maid herself.   Also, it was presented in the film as if she was basically retelling the stories that had been told to her, so I wasn’t as bothered by that as I might’ve been.   Not that there weren’t a few choice bits of dialogue that made me cringe, particularly one of the maid’s ruminations on Crisco and fried chicken.   Another thing that was initially troubling was Abilene’s especially close relationships with the children in her care.  For some reason watching her tell a young white child that she was smart and important felt redundant and misplaced, but once the detached relationship with the child’s mother and Abilene’s own personal pain is revealed, it all makes sense.  (Too bad they nearly ruined it with the child exclaiming “You’re my real mama Aibi.”)   

If I had to have one major complaint about the film though, it would be the whole Chicken Soup for the Soul vibe of it.  It didn’t avoid some of the horror that black people experienced at that time in history, but I never felt like I wasn’t watching a movie, that is to say that something about it just never rang true for me.   This could be attributed to the director’s inexperience, or maybe it was the almost complete absence of any men that factored into the plot at all.   It could not, however, be attributed to the performances.  While I was not as moved by the three leads (Stone, Davis and Octavia Spencer) as I might’ve hoped (Davis, though always a pleasure to watch, was more heartbreaking in a few minutes of Doubt),  I thoroughly enjoyed Sissy Spacek and Allison Janney’s sassy matriarchs,  Jessica Chastain’s loopy outcast and even Bryce Dallas Howard’s cunning and devious villainess.
 As hard as the filmmakers and people involved try to convince us otherwise, The Help is definitely a film for women.   The men in the film barely register in one way or another and the character arcs of the three primary characters are decidedly feminist.  None of this is necessarily an issue, because it will surely resonate on some level with its target audience, and it was one of the more laudable themes in the film.   What is less certain is whether or not the film will leave a real impression after you’ve left the theater.  

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