Since Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help was released in 2009, there’s been a lot of controversy. Is it racist because Stockett, a white woman, wrote from the perspective of black characters using dialect? Or is it progressive because she actually gave voices to black maids in 1960s Mississippi, voices that are critical of white women? Is it a feel-good novel for white women? Is a trite discussion about race better than none at all?
The film version of The Help, which opened nationally last week, does nothing at all to resolve these thorny issues—in fact, the debate over how race is portrayed in the movie seems likely to last into awards season. It’s a film that’s both more and less problematic than the novel, but in different ways—not the least brought on by Hollywood’s own fraught racial history.
In case you belong to one of the two book clubs in America that didn’t read it (or in case you are a man), The Help tells the story of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, who moves back to Jackson in 1962 after actually finishing her degree at Ole Miss instead of dropping out to get married and have babies. (As someone whose middle-class family from outside of Jackson sent their women to college for all of last century, I found this one of the most preposterous parts of the entire book—within the class of wealthy privileged women portrayed in The Help, it rings completely false that they would all be married with children by age 22.)
Skeeter’s mom is sick, but that’s never a big plot point because Skeeter considers her true mother to be Constantine, the black maid/cook/nanny who raised her. Constantine is gone, and Skeeter’s mother won’t say where. But Skeeter’s soon too busy—playing bridge with her racist friends in the Junior League, who are dominated by bossy Hilly Holbrook, and writing a column about cleaning for the local paper—to be bothered.
Of course, since Skeeter’s always had a maid, she doesn’t know how to clean, so she gets one of her friend’s maids, Aibileen Clark, to answer the questions for her. She soon realizes Aibileen’s stories might be worth telling from a journalistic perspective, and shortly thereafter, she magically has a book deal. But this is Mississippi, and everyone is racist, and the maids might lose their jobs—or worse—if they talk to Skeeter. Yet talk eventually they do, and the book gets published, and it causes a scandal, and there is fallout.
Whatever you think about the book—that it’s the product of a rich white girl who doesn’t understand anything about race or class, or that it completely changed your perspective on race—The Help is a compelling read. I picked it up, completely prepared to hate it, and found I couldn’t put it down, and everyone I know has said the same.
Were only the movie half as compelling.
The film version of The Help follows the plot of the novel faithfully—so faithfully that it includes almost every character and plot thread of all 544 pages of the book. As I was watching it I had the same feeling I felt when watching the first Harry Potter movie: Everything is happening exactly like it’s supposed to, but where’s the magic?
As the credits rolled, I found myself unsurprised to see that Chris Columbus, the director of the first Harry Potter movie, is an executive producer of The Help. He was apparently the first producer attached to project, and apparently neither he nor novice director Tate Taylor understand that the way to make a good movie out of a book is not simply to hew faithfully to everything contained within the covers.
Taylor is a childhood friend of Stockett’s and co-wrote the script with her. (This is perhaps more evidence that authors should never be involved with movies based on their own books.) While Taylor wisely limits the screen presence of Skeeter—the novel revolves around the trials and tribulations of her career and love-life much more so than the movie—actress Emma Stone is almost unbearable in the role, so much so that I found myself cringing every time her crimped hair popped up on screen. (I should also note here that someone I know who attended the Jackson premiere of The Help and ended up in the restroom at the same time as Stone had to teach her how to use a soap dispenser. Perhaps not relevant to this review, but funny nonetheless.)
Stone’s wan performance sinks even more compared with those of Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis, who play the two maids at the heart of the story, Minny Jackson and Aibileen. Davis’s performance is really the only reason to see the movie. She says so much more with her face than anyone else actually says in the entire movie, and at this point she seems a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination for best actress. Spencer’s performance is less nuanced, but she had the audience at my screening laughing uproariously throughout the movie.
A lot of the talents of the supporting cast are wasted in the movie: Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother; Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s dotty mother; Cicely Tyson as Constantine, confined to a couple of bland flashbacks; and Arkansas native Mary Steenburgen as Skeeter’s New York editor, who is ostensibly hard as nails (and Jewish), but Steenburgen’s far too sweet for that.
Still, Bryce Dallas Howard, as mean girl Hilly Holbrook, and Jessica Chastain, as white trash Celia Foote, have breakout performances. One imagines their stars will soon be on the rise as Stone’s has been since her turn in last year’s Easy A.
The main problem with The Help is the problem with Hollywood: the stereotyping, no matter how much more deeply the actresses take their characters. You have the sassy black woman, the noble suffering black woman, the old wise black woman. You have the bitchy racist brunette, the nonconformist curly redhead, and the ditzy sexpot blonde. Civil rights may have come a long way since the early 1960s, but women in Hollywood have not.
There’s one more disturbing thing about the movie—and one I’ve yet to see mentioned anywhere else. The film was shot last summer in Greenwood, Miss. That’s in the heart of the Delta, a good two hours north of Jackson. Those rundown, ramshackle houses that the maids live in, those houses that convey poverty in 1962 Jackson? Those are real houses. People still live like that all over Mississippi, and most of those people are black.
That’s the discussion we should be having, not a discussion about Stockett’s use of dialogue or whether it’s degrading for Davis to give an Oscar-worthy performance playing a maid. It’s not just about race, it’s about class. And that’s an issue about which The Help—and the country—remains clueless.