Today, Ellyn von Huben offers her review of the recent book-turned-blockbuster, "The Help," analyzing its merit as a film, a social commentary, an historical portrait, and a starting point for spiritual conversation. Read her review here.
I can’t say that I had much desire to see The Help. Not having read Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel of the same name, I didn’t have the enthusiasm of a fan of the franchise. It looked like a chick-flick – and of the inspirational type rather than some cathartic slapstick or farce. Inspirational movies tend to fall short - short and sticky sweet – and my strategy is to avoid them as much as possible. Inspirational, uplifting, wholesome, positive…sorry but these are, in my irritable opinion, movie code words screaming, “Stay away.” (I don’t think there is any way on earth I could be coaxed into seeing that movie about the spunky dolphin who needs a prosthetic tail. Even though it features Morgan Freeman – a brilliant actor possessing a voice of such mellifluous tones that his voice-overs always strike me as coming directly from heaven.).
So that was the attitude I had going in to the theatre. For those of you not familiar with The Help (and at this point I was probably the last person who hadn’t seen it), it takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s and centers around Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phalen who has just graduated from college and is not interested in the pursuit of husband/marriage that has absorbed all of her friends. ‘Skeeter’ is intent on a literary career and though her first job is ghostwriting a column of housekeeping hints for the local newspaper, she also starts on a quest to document and publish the candid testimonies of the black housekeepers employed by her circle of friends. It is the stories of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) that are the focus of the plot.
Historical fiction serves a good purpose when it promotes interest in an event or era and becomes a point of entry for inquiry into the “real thing.” As a child growing up in Wisconsin in the 1960’s, I remember reading about the Civil Rights Movement in Life and other magazines. I remember watching the evening news and seeing frightening acts of cruelty plus realities of segregation that were totally surreal to my northern eyes. (Yes, I was kind of a nerdy child. And nosy, too. I was driven to find out what was going on in the world. And unless there was something so dreadful that my parents hid the magazines and turned off the news, I learned a lot simply by keeping eyes and ears open.) When I invited my daughters to join me at the movie, it was with the thought that a fictional work might be an introduction to the racial tension of the 1960s that they had only encountered in text books or documentaries, such as the chilling Freedom Riders. The painstaking fashions and set decoration that are brilliantly utilized in Mad Men are attempted in The Help, but I never had the feeling that I was looking at a real slice of life. It was all a bit to crisp, too Hollywood.
[If I could make a recommendation in the realm of mid-twentieth century historical fiction, it would have to be the book Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress (you can skip the movie) It does a much better job of illuminating the southern mores of the 1960s. At least for those of us who would rather not have a spoonful of sugar – and would prefer that our lessons come via the story of a woman driving cross-country with her husband’s head in a Tupperware container.]
The lives of the women who raise the children, clean the homes, cook the dinners and then must muster the energy to return home and care for their own families present more than enough worthy material without having to add in the device of what has been parodied as The Nice White Lady. (“I’m a white lady – I can do anything”) Charming as ‘Skeeter’ is, she was not necessary as a catalyst for their story. Aibileen proved herself capable of writing her own story. The small storyline of what had happened to the housekeeper (played by Cicely Tyson) who had raised ‘Skeeter’ was touching but essentially superfluous. I found that much of a wallop came in the quick moments between the two groups. Distrust on both sides - tempered by a mutual need. (May I add that I was aghast at the way orders were barked at the housekeepers? "Make me a sandwich," for instance. No please, no thank you. No acknowledgment of shared humanity. It was as if slavery had never ended - just that now the slaves went home at night and commuted back by bus each morning.)
The internet is awash in websites by those who absolutely loathe the book and the movie. I can’t say that I disagree with many of their criticisms. The Help is a story that relies on stereotyping the characters – which did work in that it jump starts the story without having to actually build much background. The black women are solid, hardworking anchors for their families. Their men are pigs. (Except for the deceased son that Aibileen grieves.) The wealthy white men don’t come out looking any better. And the white women are cruel, selfish cartoons with shellacked hair and apparently endless wardrobes of party dresses. And ‘Skeeter’? We know she’s spunky – she has curly red hair and refuses her mother’s attempts to force her to tame it into a proper lady’s bouffant. (And as adorable and earnest as Emma Stone is in the role, I couldn’t help thinking that this was Little Orphan Annie’s socially conscious cousin from Mississippi.)
Bryce Dallas Howard portrays Hilly, the perfect red-headed foil for ‘Skeeter’. Lurking beneath her nasty, spoiled woman is...the heart of a nastier, spoiled child. Her self-absorption and vicious lack of love for her fellow human beings shows in her icy facade's deterioration over the course of the movie. By the end we see her unravel as she looses control of her perfect coiffure and is afflicted with a growing cold sore on her upper lip, the herpetic lesion as a fitting symbol for the blemish on her soul.
Germaphobe Hilly unashamedly leads a hurtful campaign to see that black people never share washroom facilities with whites, particularly in regards to the help availing themselves of their employers' toilets. The Help has a glancing meeting with the well known indignities of the segregated lunch counter. But it t takes a wry turn away from the usual segregation story construct and instead focuses its horror and humor on the other end of the alimentary canal. (Here was a surprise to me - that the people who kept house could not use the same facilities that they were charged with cleaning. Not all torture is inflicted with dogs and rubber hoses.)
At times the script gives the characters more dimensionality, such as when Aibileen is rocking her young charge after a tornado (“Eighteen people were killed in Jackson that night. Ten white and eight black. I don't think God has color in mind when he sets a tornado loose.”) and the flashback to a party in which we are allowed to see the pressures of racist conformity on ‘Skeeter’s ailing mother (Allison Janney). It is in those subtle moments when the movie has the most impact and manages to stop short of out and out bathos. On the other hand, Jessica Chastain plays a socially inept neighbor who has married ‘up’ and can’t seem to fit in. Her role is so broadly written that it is embarrassingly comical, though there are some precious moments when she is allowed to give a more nuanced performance and lets us see her and not some caricature of a ‘white trash’ girl floundering around out of her element.
This film does not take advantage of its full spiritual potential. There is the obligatory scene of Sunday worship in the black church, with strong sermonizing by the preacher (“If you can love your enemy, you already have victory”) but the opportunities to see this put in action are tangential and the spiritual formation of the white employers is not addressed at all.
Working with the characters of the archetypal strong black mother figure, Davis and Spencer bring depth and beauty to their roles.. There are moments when they are able to portray emotion with the most subtle of expressions, not relying on the stereotype – but going through and beyond it. Their performances were nothing short of brilliant. I would especially point out Octavia’s Minny who, while showing us a strong comedic side, is not allowed to slide into a vaudevillian comic turn. Lesser actors would be content to let their performance depend on overworn stereotypes, but here we see actors pushing outside of this to portray genuine, fleshed-out people.
The Help may not be a great movie. But it features some great performances and shines a light on a time when the failure to love cast a blight upon our world. And every time this is re-examined – in fiction or documentary – the world is a bit better for it. The easy resolution of The Help must not be mistaken for fact. Real life is never quite so tidy. But as a moment for reflection and a springboard for discussion it is a good place to start.
Ellyn von Huben is a regular contributor to the Word on Fire Blog. She also moderates her own blog, Oblique House.