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“The Help” opens dialogue, minds, and more

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.

Another friend, Chris from Mama Bird’s Blog, got to view a screening at BlogHer in San Diego. She shared her review here (and she hasn’t read the book, either).

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.

11 comments to “The Help” opens dialogue, minds, and more

  • You are so right about Annelle, now that I think about it!

    I hope you enjoy the book ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I just saw the previews for this and thought it looked hilarious. I had no idea it was a book either. Gonna have to see it, thanks for the review!

  • Spot on, Gretchen! I saw the movie with the same unfiltered glasses as you, never having heard of the book. I love how you lay out the film and the characters – you have such great insights as always!

    So enjoyed this review. Will be sharing!

  • I have the book if you want to borrow it! GRIN!

  • Kimberly

    I have talked to my mom a bit about the racial issues in the 1960s, since she graduated from high school in 1961. She lived in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Louisiana during the 50’s. When I ask her about the “whites only” signs and things, she says that she really didn’t see them.

    There was a black lady that helped her mother clean in the early 60s in NOLA. She and mom got along rather well, and she stayed in touch with my mom until her death. I grew up hearing about her all my life, though I didn’t meet her until I was about 8. I had no idea that she was black until I met her.

    What does that say? I dunno. Except that not every white family that employed a black woman treated her poorly. And also, it would be good to have heard from an actual woman who actually lived during the time, either white or black, to talk about it, rather than taking lessons from a work of fiction from a 40 year old. (wow, that sounded snippier than I meant it to.)

    All that said, I really enjoyed the book. I just think we need to be careful about what is history and about what is fiction.

  • I loved the book, totally gripping!!! It was so interesting to read about racial issues anywhere other than home. Here racial issues are so politically driven rather than socially driven. This book was packed with lots to think about, never thought of sharing it with my kids, but you are so right it would be a great book for them to read when they were older…while it presents a world totally removed from their reality there are heaps of topics to discuss here!!!

  • Amy

    I’ve read the book but haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m going with some girlfriends on Friday while our kiddos are back in school.

    As far as the book was concerned, I wasn’t as crazy about it as the rest of the world seems to be. Like you, I immediately fell in love with the characters and thought the story provided the perfect opportunity for discussion about the issue of race.

    I had two main complaints. First, I felt like many of the characters were a bit overdone and cliche. My other gripe was that the author went to great lengths to accurately capture the black, southern accents of the maids, but when it came to the dialogue of the white women, she didn’t include a single ya’ll. I found it to be very distracting.

    As someone who has been transplanted from Colorado to the South, I am sad to say that many of the prejudices expressed in the book still exist today. The practice of having separate toilets may have gone away, but racist mindsets are sometimes hard to get rid of, especially when they’ve been taught for generations.

    That said, in my sixteen years in Nashville, the area has undergone a a huge transformation. Dozens of corporations have moved in (Nissan recently relocated their US headquarters from LA to my neck of the woods) and have further added to the change. While the area still maintains it’s old Southern charm, eople are generally much more accepting and tolerant of other races, ideas and lifestyles than they were a decade ago.

    There are still plenty of ladies, both young and old, that still fit the typical stereotype: Always starched and pressed, overly made-up (big hair, heavy make-up, lots of jewelery), sweet tea drinking, chattering a mile a minute in their Southern drawl, while trying to avoid any activities that might make them break a sweat. It’s just that now, their neighborhoods are filled with people from New York to LA. In my opinion, it’s a good thing.

  • edj

    My main complaint about the book was that parts of it felt lazy and sterotypical, like the characters you mentioned. Regardless, the book was good, and I’m going to see the movie with some friends next week. Enjoyed your review.

  • I haven’t finished the book yet. I put it aside over a month ago. I thought it was good but… then I started to feel uncomfortable about it but still might try to finish it before I see the movie.


  • I’d like to see the movie, but not sure if I’ll manage to catch it in the theatre. Jason and I are having a date night tomorrow night, and we’ve decided to see the one about the apes attacking people. I suspect it will be less thought provoking than The Help ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I didn’t read the book either! Not really interested in reading it at the moment, but it sounds like a great way to introduce that period of American history to young women… may have to take Ally to see it.

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