Aidan and I attended a screening of The Help last week. I am the only woman in the United States who hasn’t read the book. My review is from the perspective of “What book? The Help you say? There’s a film? Sure, I’ll go.” In other words, you can trust my authority as a clueless nitwit when it comes to pop lit.
As a movie reviewer, though, I have formulated strong opinions about the story of Hilly and Milly, Aibileen and Skeeter, and how commodes can change everything.
The film opens in a kitchen where Aibileen Clark, played by Viola Davis, begins to share the story of her life as a maid for the rich white women of Jackson, Mississippi. As she speaks, earnest college-grad Skeeter, played by Emma Stone, jots down notes for the book they are collaborating to write. Their hope is that the book will expose the ugliness in a very brittle facade—not everyone is content with this arrangement.
Slavery never really died. It just tried to dress itself up by paying 95 cents a day.
One of the best things about The Help is the discussions it sparked with Aidan. The Deep South in the 1960s seems far-flung, foreign and bizarrely backward. It was mired in a swamp of prejudice where race and class seemed to be on the forefront of everyone’s minds. Sadly, racism is still alive and thriving. The Help can serve as a platform for discussion and reflection.
The film quickly and deftly introduces the women. Bryce Dallas Howard is deliciously perfect as the gossiping, sweetly snarling, blatantly racist Hilly Holbrook. Queen Bee Hilly’s main crusade is to try to get a law passed requiring every white home to have separate toilet facilities for the help. As she explains during a bridge game with a group of young, white, privileged women, it’s important for the safety and health of their children. Black people carry different diseases, you know…
The white women, in their crisp floral dresses and flippy hairdos, solemnly nod in agreement. Meanwhile, maids Aibileen and Milly, played by Octavia Spencer, look at each other in defeat and disgust from the next room. The two sides are pitted. From the surface, their battle will be over bathrooms. As the film unfolds, it’s apparent the bathroom issue merely a final straw. It spurs Skeeter to begin her project. It inspires the maids to stand up for themselves, but their grievances go back generations.
More maids come forward until Skeeter has enough material to write her slim, anonymous expose. It’s published with the help of a slick, smart New York publishing house editor who senses the winds of change. Eventually, every nightstand in Jackson, Mississippi had a sky-blue book perched on top for a little bedtime indignant horror. Goes good with warm milk.
Another thing that goes well with milk is chocolate pie.
The Help is shocking, funny, bittersweet, solemn, sad. I deeply appreciated how it skillfully incorporated television footage of the time. The assassinations of Medgar Evers and JFK were shocks to the sensibilities of the time. All was not right in the world of bridge clubs and back kitchens.
I have some minor gripes with the film. Some of the characters were almost cartoonish in their portrayal of Southern ladies. Sissy Spacek plays Hilly’s dotty, eccentric mother, Mrs. Walters. Doesn’t it seem like every Southern story/book/movie has an old lady who wears fur coats when it’s 90 degrees outside? She drinks copiously and watches her stories and cackles wisely. Another over-the-top character is Celia Foote, played by Jessica Chastain. She was adorable. I loved her manic energy and twang, but does every Southern town have a white trash girl with a heart of gold, misunderstood, with a tortured soul under a helmet of hairspray, encased in sequins like a bratwurst? Annelle Dupuy Desoto, I’m looking at you.
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVED these characters. I’d watch a movie with just the two of them hitting the road in a big ol’ time-travellin’ Cadillac as they go visit the gals from Steel Magnolias. It just seems a little lazy to throw a fur coat and horn-rimmed glasses on yet another old Mississippi lady. Or maybe that’s what it’s really like down there. In that case, I know where I’m retiring.
The film seemed to bog down near the end. The pace significantly slowed and I found myself thinking I got the point, the story has been told. The final scene will make you cry, but it seemed a bit tacked on. It was a final jab at the cold white ladies who are left in bitter despair and confusion, seemingly learning nothing. I hated seeing an otherwise lovely film succumb to trite cliches as the credits rolled.
Despite that, I give The Help a Clean Diaper rating. Proceed with your popcorn.
My friend and cohort, Lori from Write Mind Open Heart, wrote a review from her usual wise perspective. She read the book! If you read the book, too, and would like to see if the film measures up, go say hello. Her review is here.
The Help is rated PG-13 and opens today. It’s appropriate for older kids, who might find it a great springboard to discuss civil rights history. There is a scene where something extremely disgusting happens, totally unbelievable, but it becomes a metaphor larger than life and central to the story. To say more would spoil more than your lunch if you haven’t read the book. I was given reviewing-press passes. The opinions are solely mine.