“The Help”– “Telling the Truth Can Be a Revolutionary Act”

Based upon the best-selling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a vision of a divided America that is consistent, sometimes terrifying, in its insulting, insinuating dehumanization of African Americans. This movie is also easy-to-like –problematic but ultimately winning–and has now earned a huge $154.4 million in box revenues.

Skeeter (played competently by Emma Stone), a young white journalism major who has recently graduated from the University of Mississippi, has returned home to Jackson to find that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised her, no longer works for her mother. As Skeeter tries to find out what happened to Constantine, she begins to see the reality of life in Jackson for the black residents who are a vital part of the white community’s quality of life. Aibileen (impeccably portrayed by Viola Davis), the heroine of the movie, tells her life to Skeeter who secretly interviews her at night.  Slowly other maids bravely come forth, at great personal risk,  to tell their stories of the  same suffering, the same humiliating circumstances on the cusp of the civil rights revolution.

Irony is often heavy handed.  For example, the Junior League’s fund-raising for the sake of “the Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the poor African-Americans of Jackson as if they were subhuman.  Minnie, another black maid, is defiantly humorous.   Played by Octavia Spencer who seems to be paying tribute to the maids portrayed in the 1930’s and 1940’s by notable African-American actresses with few options in theater or cinema, her bravura performance  adds a much-needed comic element.

The cycle of racism spins in too-familiar patterns.  The white babies the black maids raise become the housewives who insult them.  Only Skeeter is motivated to change things for those who have cared for her and her peers. One other young white woman in town, Celia (again, a superb Jessica Chastain of “The Debt” and “The Tree of Life”), seems to see the ugly truth underpinning the superficial beauty of the town.

The extraordinary actress, Viola Davis (from “Doubt”, and the Tony award-winning “Fences”) infuses Aibileen with a dignity and warmth that fully reveals an exceptionally strong female character in spite of some of the caricature that her role could have conveyed.  “The Help” belongs to her. Even when the story drifts to the white women from hell –the Junior League Ole Miss debutantes epitomized by Miss Hilly (fiercely played by Bryce Dallas Howard), Davis’s performance lingers in the viewer’s mind, with  tough, wrenchingly vulnerable scenes with a pudgy, insecure little white girl at risk of irreparable damage. Another story is also a subtext, however.  Inside all these different homes, black and white, women with hearts and souls tended to the urgent matters of everyday life, like the care and feeding of children, and the seeking of approval from their husbands.  The white women are no happier than the black women, only meaner and more frightened by the impending change they can feel subliminally. No one voices their frustration with their circumstances except, in the end, the help.

This movie could have devolved into a cartoon of good vs. evil, but the actresses refuse to demean their characters by mocking them in such shorthand.  Only Miss Hilly and Elizabeth, the two most strident racists among the socialites, are virtually one-dimensional.  But these actresses find every possible nuance to show their neurotic tendencies, their fear of social ostracism and save their performances from being caricatures.

The era evoked in  “The Help” is not even fifty years ago but presents us with the painful recognition of the best and the worst of US race relations.

Update: For an additional article (November 9) about “The Help” which I wrote, go to the website www.womensmemoirs.com.

 

7 comments on ““The Help”– “Telling the Truth Can Be a Revolutionary Act”

  1. nice work here Diana — I haven’t seen it (yet, don’t get to see ‘movies’ these days), maybe some day. . . . I wonder if you’ve seen Money Ball — lots of talk up here in the Bay Area (on Sports Talk radio, at least) about how it presents Art Howe (the A’s manager), not at all accurately, it seems. . . .
    Steve

  2. It was a chore to sit through 146 minutes of an apolitical movie about the civil rights movement.
    It was another feel good story about black and white America, and it seemed inefficient…
    The whites were either a crusader or bigots. Davis and Spencer gave the only performances of real people. Also, I felt I was being emotionally manipulated during the second half.
    The score could have been worlds better… after all, this was the 60s!

  3. I’m afraid I agree with Celeste, above. This movie which is so very popular is really a cliche. It affirms the idea for the people who are watching that, somehow, because they are watching it, they do not and would not behave like the characters portrayed. That makes everyone feel good, black and white. It’s a feel-good film that makes the whole black/white issue trite and no longer a problem. After all, it says, this happened “then” and “there” and we are not involved. All the people characterized are one-dimensionals. No character development here. Hence, we only watch. We cannot get involved because we don’t believe the actors are real people.

    • I side with Joanne and Celeste, even though I haven’t seen the film!

      However, I expected a glib Hollywood treatment of the film based on my reading of the book—which was, in my opinion, an opportunistic fraud, badly written and with particularly poor management of dialect and differentiation of characters. I’d love to hear what black American women from that time and place would think of the book—if any bothered to read it. Its “feel-good, heartwarming” treatment of the subject did a disservice to the topic—where does a white woman get off writing about black domestics’ inner lives, anyway? I’m waiting for the backlash reviews once the film is seen widely enough that we get black America’s viewpoint.

  4. I found the film, “The Help”, oddly comforting and reminiscent of my summers living with my grandmother in the South. While it seems difficult to conceive for many distantly familiar with the hot topics of the time, many African Americans did not participate in the Civil Rights movement. The movie speaks to a time that resonated with the treatment of maids, as many women in my family were despite many of their educational backgrounds, during my childhood of 80’s-90’s. One could argue the treatment still abounds today, as numerous families in this country have maids, first-generation immigrants who do not hold the required documentation for working and living in the U.S. and prefer employing “under the table” – yet do not support immigrant rights, despite the fact the children of these families are being raised by these women. This can be seen as the same ideology held by the housewives’ (subtly by the husbands) but in different form as seen in Skeeter’s protest of the firing of Constantine in “The Help”. Commenting on the audacity of a white woman writing about African American women is mute. Shakespeare wrote on the love professed by a woman. Scholars often write about cultures and ethnicities not theirs. One does not need to be of a group in order to tell a story when compassion and the recognition of (in)justice is applied. Voice may be translated. There is this notion within society that when a film or TV show featuring groups that are and have been historically discriminated against and reside in an oppressive system, all society ills must be addressed. I recommend watching “Mississippi Burning” or Spike Lee’s “X”. People of color (a term I have yet to understand how it became accepted) have lives that are outside the daily acknowledgement that life is/has been a struggle. One must not forget that this is set in Mississippi, miscegenation laws were only officially repealed in 1997, where white women attended college to find a husband, which was spoken of in jest in the film. The South was a world, even now in some areas, where towns are divided along white side of town and black side of town, so for the maids to constantly save face was a fact of life that could otherwise end in a beating if not death. “The Help” is one film that deserves a chance; a chance to address poorly stitched wounds that still weep in this country; a chance to open a dialogue without the shock-to-the-system method used by many films addressing this era; and finally a chance for people like myself with deep roots in the South and in African American values to see a strong character depicted in the role of maids and nannies.

  5. Pingback: Memoir Movie Review: — Memoir Writing Blog

  6. Hi Diana:

    Great movie review. I’ve now been to see “The Help” twice. Remember, I’m the one who says that she never sees a movie twice. My business partner, Kendra Bonnett, is staying with us for a month of work and we go out for little bits of fun. Hence my second viewing of “The Help.”

    While I respect the perspective of some of your commenters, I do see the movie a little differently. For me, “The Help” tells a story that has not been told before. Many people, especially the younger generation, don’t know what it was like in the south for African Americans during the Civil Rights movement (and before, of course). This is the story of a young white woman who is sensitized to the unfair and unkind treatment of maids in white households.

    Perhaps the next narrative will be a memoir in the voice of an African American main character. But for now “The Help”, not a first-person narrative about a black woman’s experience, is still a bridge between the outsider and insider and raises an awareness of what life may have been like in pre-civil rights America. To the degree that “The Help” bridges the gap between differences, it connects one person’s experience with the reader’s and triggers the affect of memoir.

    As you can see, I look at both fiction and non-fiction in terms of how it relates to memoir writing.

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