Domesticated Drama

I must confess to feeling some smug satisfaction upon learning that The Help, in its second weekend of release (when ticket sales are supposed to drop off), was the nation’s top box-office draw, besting four new releases, including the gory remake of Conan the Barbarian. Take that, Conan! Marginalized women strike a blow against the established social order not with violence, but simply by telling their true stories, and sell more tickets in the bargain. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed.

And yet. As moved as I sometimes found myself by the film version of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel — particularly by Viola Davis’s poignant performance as the wise and gentle but steely Aibileen — I couldn’t help but feel that the filmmakers had taken the easy way out.

It’s not just that this Civil Rights era-story is told largely through white characters — that’s been happening in literature and film for at least 50 years (from To Kill a Mockingbird to Mississippi Burning to The Secret Life of Bees). At least The Help has two main characters who are black, who are not victims, and who happen to be quite different from each other. Director Tate Taylor (a relative novice) adapted the screenplay himself, and he has remained quite faithful to the source material in terms of plotting and pace, although of course some story lines get simplified or omitted. It is 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, and Skeeter (Emma Stone) has just returned home from college, apparently the only one of her social circle to have actually graduated from Ole Miss (while she was double-majoring in English and journalism, her friends were all pursuing their MRS degree). Although she’s known these women all her life, Skeeter — with her unruly curls, unlucky dating history, and ambitions of being a writer — has an ever more difficult time fitting in among her perfectly coiffed housewife friends, especially Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), an ardent segregationist who rules the Junior League with a white-gloved but iron fist. Then, encouraged by a book editor she’s contacted in New York, Skeeter hits on an idea that will isolate her from her friends even more and place a great many people in danger.

Skeeter, troubled by the fact that nobody — black or white — will tell her the fate of her own family’s maid (who essentially raised her), and increasingly unable to ignore the peculiar dynamics of the color line between the wealthy white women of Jackson and the black women who clean their houses and rear their children, decides to write a book on the topic, albeit anonymously. She convinces Aibileen, the housekeeper of a close friend, to talk to her honestly about what it’s like to work as a maid for white families. Aibileen in turn persuades her notoriously defiant friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) and about a dozen other friends to share with Skeeter their stories of working as domestics — the slights and injustices, the brutal and arrogant treatment, the rewards, and even some kindnesses. Although the book is published anonymously, with pseudonyms for all involved including the city, it’s not long before all of Jackson — black and white — is electric with speculation, accusation, and fear of retaliation.

It’s the unexpected kindnesses that I wish Taylor had chosen to emphasize a little more. As it is, most of the movie’s white characters treat their housekeepers so demeaningly, it’s easy for contemporary audiences to see them as villains, people clearly on the wrong side of history. But what if we had been asked to judge white people who put their maids’ children through college or helped them get decent medical treatment yet still didn’t bother paying them minimum wage? What would we make of people who could show compassion and humanity towards another individual but not do a single thing to challenge the status quo that drew such rigid distinctions between them?

The Help doesn’t seem to want to make its audience work that hard. Instead, it goes for laughs at every opportunity, especially if it gives us another chance to feel superior to the bad guys (who are mostly women, in this case). Of course, the book has plenty of humorous moments. But the undercurrent of menace, of the very real danger for everyone (especially the black people) involved if anyone discovers their participation in this enterprise, is also pervasive in the book — yet considerably downplayed in the movie.

But even with the risk being undersold, the three protagonists — Skeeter, Minny, and especially Aibileen — emerge as heroes, having given each other the strength and courage to face an uncertain new life and create a legacy of their own. And the director was daring enough to leave some loose ends that in the book were neatly tied. Even though it could have been more ambitious, The Help still triumphs as the story of an unlikely friendship and alliance among three brave women.

The Help. Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, and Allison Janney star in a film written and directed by Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett.

Rated PG-13 for profanity and use of the n-word, some violence (more suggested than graphic), adult situations, disturbing content including explicit expressions of racism, and pervasive smoking as well as quite a bit of drinking. Running time: 146 minutes.

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