A Serving of Courage, with a Side of Honor

The Help was written by Kathryn Stockett, inspired by her experiences being raised by a black maid while growing up in Jackson, Mississippi.  She set her story in the early 1960’s, at the flashpoint for the struggle for equality.  As has happened before with eventual bestsellers, the book was rejected 60 times before it was published.  (Margaret Mitchell endured over 100 rejections of Gone with the Wind.)  Once it was out, reviewers and the reading public embraced the story.

The movie version of The Help faced two hurdles.  First, it was a publishing phenomenon that spent over a year on the bestseller lists.  That pretty much guaranteed it would be made into a movie, though the end result of such films is always questionable.  For every Godfather, there’s a DaVinci Code, where plot holes that were acceptably small on the printed page become gaping chasms on a 40-foot high screen (and even Tom Hanks couldn’t act beneath that truly horrendous hairstyle).  The nadir of bestsellers-to-the-screen has to be Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  It made fewer dollars in the theater than the number of copies of the book that were sold.  Adapting a bestseller isn’t easy – not every movie can be Gone With The Wind.  

And that’s the second hurdle.  Hollywood’s history of major movies dealing with race relations is at best pathetic.  In GWTW Hattie McDaniel managed to project her inner pride so it shone through her performance, but the role would have been another flat stereotype without her ability.  (Look at the rest of the black characters in the movie.)  White and black audiences do respond differently to movies.  White audiences applauded Driving Miss Daisy all the way to an Oscar win, while black audiences cringed at the servile relationship.  Even at the end, they were a long way from equals.  Then you have Mississippi Burning, telling a race relations story from the viewpoint of two white FBI agents.  It had the same relationship to the civil rights struggle that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead had to Hamlet.

In The Help, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) returns to Jackson after graduating from Ole Miss.  She’s an aspiring writer and soon gets a job at the city’s newspaper writing a domestic advice column.  Skeeter is as domesticated as a wild stallion.  She seeks help from Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), the maid of Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly).  But Skeeter also has a secret project in mind – a book telling the experiences of the city’s maids.  As Skeeter asks Aibileen, “How does it feel to be raising a white child while your own child is at home being cared for by others?”  Aibileen resists Skeeter’s overtures since she knows she could face beatings or even death for breaking the silence the maids labor under.  Then during a church service the pastor’s words convince her to bravely take a stand.  She’s joined in the project by Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a maid who worked for years for Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek) but whose employment has been co-opted by Walters’ socialite daughter, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).  After a run-in with Hilly over access to a toilet, Minny ends up working on the sly for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a woman who’s considered white trash by Jackson society even though she’s married into one of the town’s prominent families.

I’m happy to report The Help cleared both hurdles with room to spare.  It has garnered support within the black community from such luminaries as civil rights pioneer Andrew Young and Tyler Perry.  Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers (who was shot down in Jackson during the period where The Help is set) has said the movie captured the times.  It helps that the director, Tate Taylor, was brought up in Jackson and knew the subject intimately.  He’d been a friend of Kathryn Stockett ever since kindergarten.  The recreation of Jackson (filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi) is meticulous.  While it isn’t overtly shown, Taylor suffuses the film’s atmosphere with the potential for violence like a constantly simmering teapot, ready to boil over.  (In a pivotal scene where other maids volunteer to help Skeeter, Taylor cast his own childhood maid as the first woman to speak.)

With this movie, Oscar season has officially started.  Viola Davis is an exceptional actress.  Three years ago she stole the movie Doubt from Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.  Here she takes center stage and delivers a seemless performance.  I was particularly touched by a scene where she explains why she’ll help Skeeter.  Davis speaks the lines with both pride and heartbreaking love, while a single teardrop escapes her eye.  Octavia Spencer was also an acquaintance of Stockett’s, and the author used her as a template for the brusque, blunt Minny.  Now she gets to inhabit the role, and does it beautifully.

When I reviewed Crazy, Stupid Love, I said that The Help would cement Emma Stone’s reputation as a quality actress.  In light of her performance, that is faint praise.  She is clearly one of the best actresses of her generation, be it in comedy or drama.  She dives into the raw emotion Skeeter at times displays, especially in regard to her own childhood maid Constantine (the excellent Cicely Tyson).  As Skeeter’s mother, Allison Janey provides a strong counterpoint for Stone to play against as a woman whose physical weaknesses are nothing compared to her spiritual ones, but who finally finds a moment of redemption.

I could go on about each one of the actors in this movie, for there is not a single weak performance, but that would be an extremely long review.  Still, I must mention Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, the heavy of the movie.  That she hides behind a brilliant smile and perfect manners only makes her vindictiveness and hatred all the more devastating.  It is a breakthrough role for Howard and she does her papa Ron proud.

There is a moment near the end of the film that would have been the perfect Hollywood ending.  Instead, Taylor goes on and films the book’s final pages, an emotionally ripping scene that shows the gap still existing between the races.  It was the right way to end this movie, and is ultimately more satisfying.  I recommend that you see this movie because, once you do, you’ll be recommending it to all of your friends.

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