The Help is the film everyone has been talking about this week. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, it has been eagerly awaited by book club members and sensitive readers nationwide since it was published two years ago. The film provides an intimate look at the often-demeaning relationship between white women in Mississippi and the black maids who served them during the turbulent 1960s.
During this time, women up north were beginning to recognize the vast career options available to them. But in the Deep South, women were still staying at home with their children, joining the Junior League, hosting bridge clubs, and criticizing "the help" — and each other. In this story, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the "queen bee" whose opinion matters to everyone, black or white. She controls the social life of the town by voicing her opinions firmly and then leads the shunning of anyone who dares to disagree with her. Her kind of female has always existed, of course, and not just in the South. She has been immortalized in such films as The Women and Mean Girls, and can still be found controlling social groups, PTA meetings, cheerleading squads, and even board rooms, with a raised eyebrow and a withering look. No one likes her, but no one dares to cross her.
In the story, Hilly has been leading her group of friends since grade school. All of them are now married with children, except Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has chosen to finish college and wants to become a writer. She lands a job at the local newspaper as an advice columnist answering questions about house cleaning. Ironically, of course, Skeeter has never polished a spoon or scrubbed a bathtub ring in her life. So she turns to "the help" for help, in the person of Aibileen (Viola Davis), her friend Elizabeth's maid. Eventually she convinces Aibileen and a dozen other maids to share their stories, and a book is born.
As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly.
Aibileen is what Skeeter ought to be. Like many white college graduates, Skeeter simply "wants to be a writer." She doesn't have a burning topic just itching to come out. She wants the title of "writer" as much as she wants the occupation. When she applies for a job at Harper & Row, the editor (Mary Steenburgen) tells her, "Write about something that disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else." Skeeter looks for a topic that will allow her to become a writer, rather than using her writing to expose a problem she cares deeply about. Aibileen, by contrast, is simply a writer. She writes every night for an hour or two. She writes what is in her soul. She writes her prayers.
In many ways, Viola Davis as Aibileen carries the show and at the same time embodies the central conflict of the story. I say this because, although Davis is one of the finest actors in Hollywood, with an Oscar to her credit, you will seldom see that accolade in print without the modifier "black actress." As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights: our schools and neighborhoods are fully integrated. We have a black president in the White House. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly. I would love to ask Davis how she feels about the roles she has been offered.
Equally impressive is Octavia Spencer as Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson, an outspoken maid who has lost so many jobs because of her sassy back talk that she now works for the last woman in town who will hire her — Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who is shunned by the ladies because of her "white trash" background. Celia doesn't know the rules of maid-employer relationships. Ironically, Minny teaches Celia the boundaries she and the other maids are trying to expose with Skeeter’s book. Spencer's large liquid eyes alternately shine with sharp-witted laughter and melt into pain-filled tears. If Aibileen is the soul of this black community, Minny is its heart.
Having read the book, I wasn't pleased to learn that the beautiful Emma Stone had been cast as the tall, skinny, unattractive Skeeter, since her gangly appearance is such an important part of her character. But somehow Stone manages to look like a plain Jane in this film — her eyes are too big, her lips are too thin, her hair is too curly, and her face is too pale. In short, she is perfect.
Despite having grown up in Jackson, Skeeter really doesn't fit in with her snooty friends. She is disturbed by Hilly's insistence that Elizabeth install a separate bathroom for Aibileen. In fact, Hilly wants a law mandating separate facilities in private homes, "for the prevention of disease." This prompts Skeeter to examine the way maids are treated by the women who employ them. "Colored women raise white children, and twenty years later these white children become the boss," she muses. "When do we change from loving them to hating them?" Aibileen observes the same dilemma: "I want to stop that moment coming — and it come in ever white child's life — when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites."
Toilets, and the material that goes into them, become the strongest recurrent image in this film. From diapers and potty training to vomiting and pranks, toilets are a symbol for what was wrong with the "separate but equal" policy in the south. The facilities were separate, but they most assuredly were not equal. Aibileen's bathroom is a plywood closet located in a corner of the garage with a bare bulb hanging from a wire, and toilet paper resting on a bare 2×4. The symbol, which emphasizes how badly blacks could be treated by whites in those days, provides moments of both shame and laughter.
However, the film misses the richer, darker, and more sinister tone that underlies the book. For black women to write about their employers was no joke, and the book makes it clear that its women are risking real dangers when they decide to tell the truth. Permanent job loss, physical violence, and even jail are real threats in a society where the mere accusation of a crime can lead to vigilante justice with lifetime consequences. By showing this clearly, the book gains a tension and suspense that is missing from the film.
The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood?
Strangely, I found it more difficult to enter the minds and lives of the maids while watching the film than I did while reading the book. The story is told through the three voices of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, who narrate alternating sections of the book. These voices are strong and rich, and I could enter their worlds, empathizing with their experiences vicariously. In the film, however, I was merely an observer. I often felt defensive, rather than empathetic, about what I was seeing, as though I were somehow responsible for the actions of those women long ago, simply because I am white. If we learn anything from our battle for civil rights, however, it is that each person should be judged individually, and not collectively as part of a race.
The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood? Stockett, who was reared in Mississippi by a black maid whom she says she loved, suggests that they learned it from their mothers, by example as well as by instruction. To quote Oscar Hammerstein in South Pacific, racism "has to be carefully taught." But books like this also suggest that children can be carefully taught not to be judgmental. Every day Aibileen tells Elizabeth's little girl, "You is smart. You is kind. You is important." She says nothing about little Mae Mobley's appearance, good or bad. Knowing that she will likely be fired or retired before Mae Mobley reaches her teen years, Aibileen hopes desperately that these words will be enough.
As is often the case, the film is good, but the book is so much better. Don't take a short cut this time. Read The Help first, and then see the movie. You will enjoy both so much more if you do it that way.