D: Tate Taylor. DP: Stephen Goldblatt. Starring: Viola Davis/Emma Stone/Octavia Spencer/Bryce Dallas Howard/Jessica Chastain/Allison Janney/Ahna O’Reilly/Cicely Tyson/Anna Camp/Sissy Spacek/Mike Vogel/Chris Lowell. (NOTE: Based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 of the same name.)
About two months ago I wandered into my local Barnes and Noble and was once again seduced by the smell of fresh paper and new stories for my deprived imagination. That afternoon I went home with Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help. And like many an avid bookworm, I soon gobbled it up and started peddling it to my nearest friends. Because you should read it. And now, you should definitely see it.
The Help, for those unfortunate few who have not read it, will catch you off guard. Not only because it is a movie of quality with a release date in August, but also it demands that its audiences listen, feel and join in. Like the novel, there is no true central character to the film. Rather it is held up by a core group of excellent female performances. The spark of the plot is ignited by young Eugenia or rather, Skeeter (Emma Stone), finally home from her four years at Ole Miss. Bright and quirky, Stone is as good as ever, but also has tremendous support in her co-stars. Viola Davis makes an unforgettable turn as maid Aibileen. Davis gives Aibileen all of the quietness, strength, and calming warmth she has in Stockett’s book. Her scenes with most recent “white baby” Mae Mobley make your heart burst and your gut wrench all at the same time. I could have only asked for more screen time for the pair.
Davis is offset by fellow maid Minnie (Octavia Spencer) whose more active approach to showing her dislike for her boss soon gets her in trouble. Spencer’s Minnie is just the right amount of spark, oomph, and integrity she should be. And thankfully, Spencer is able to never cross that line into hokey or caricature. Truly allowing all the maids’ personalities to shine through these womens’ performances and giving Stone’s attempt at writing her book of their stories some actual weight. But, Spencer has the unfortunate luck to have worked for Miss Hilly Holbrook, brought to life by Bryce Dallas Howard. Apparently hidden within Howard was this performance waiting to happen. Her quaffed appearance and icy delivery is just the window dressing on the sheer menace and danger Howard gave to her Hilly. She pulls her all her weight here and truly shines.
Yet, the surprise star of the film is Jessica Chastain whose incarnation of Sugar Ditch’s Celia Foote will break just as many hearts as the rest of the film. Although her more eccentric moments from the novel are left out, Chastain truly allows Celia to be three dimensional. My only qualms with the film were certain detailed omissions and different emphases the film made over the novel. The pie gag was tediously overplayed in the film, Stone was not isolated enough from her Junior League ladies, and there needed to be a splash more darkness outside of Howard’s character. However, those will appear merely nit picky compared to the range of emotions The Help brings up and the importance of the stories it tells.
Lastly, one cannot watch this film or read the novel without addressing many issues. Let me be completely clear on my standpoint with this. I believe that regardless of what opinion you have on the racial representation of the work, the marketing of the book (down to its placement in bookstores) or the right of certain “groups” to tell stories based around other “groups,” in which they do not belong, that the achievement of this book and film is that these discussions are happening. Hostility towards this book (and by extension the film) from certain literary groups, authors, and readers could possibly be routed in the lack of discussion or recognition of the problematic nature of its content. Let me be more direct.
Although this is fiction, The Help‘s historical context and discussion of a black American experience would possibly have isolated the novel in a African-American fiction section of a bookstore, had the book been written by a black woman. However, it was not. Due to its prominence elsewhere (and quality, as I believe it has a load of that) it was able to gather a lot of attention. I am not saying this is what happened, but merely conjecturing on my own observations. This theory in itself would agitate anyone, as did the idea of a white author writing about the civil rights movement from a black woman’s perspective. However, in response to that, I must maintain my opinion that the work is fiction and this issue is directly tackled by the author in her afterword. Being aware of the significance of her the story she is telling, tells me that the author recognizes the difficult context in which she is in. Yet, as I said in the beginning, I believe the spark and outbursts about these issues can only be good. Until we, as in all social groups, recognize the significance of these stories in our own lives how can we begin to understand them? Because, truth be told, we are all part of this story. It is part of American history. Part of woman’s history. And although our own lives may never lead us to be able to claim certain stories as our own, that does not mean we can not explore them through fiction. And thankfully The Help does just that.