I loved the book. Couldn’t wait to see the movie. The trailer gave me pause–nothing subtle here and that proved to be true. It’s more pat and somehow smaller than Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, but it’s an engaging, if candy-coated take on the social milieu of a very American group of characters on the cusp of the civil rights movement in the deep south– the white women of an upscale Mississippi neighborhood and the “colored” women who work for them: THE HELP.
The first sound we hear is the voice of a black maid named Aibileen (Viola Davis) and the first image we see is the hand of Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a rebellious young white woman writing Aibileen’s words on white lined paper. The emphasis is correct, because THE HELP is also, but not ultimately about civil rights; it’s about the power of narrative itself: the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how those stories can trap or liberate us. (It’s notable that the most crucial thing Aibileen may have done for the little neglected white girl in her charge may have been telling her repeatedly: “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.”) Aibileen (and eventually many of her friends) dares to tell and Skeeter dares to write her first book about the embedded racism, cruelty, heartbreak, resentment and resignation intertwined in the complex relationships between the black maids and the privileged white families they care for. The book liberates them both.
Skeeter has a particular affinity for this material since she too is an outsider with hopes and dreams beyond her station: she’s a smart, assertive, curly haired white girl who wants a career more than she wants a husband– incomprehensible to the society of ninnies who spend their days throwing charity balls for the poor black Africans on the other side of the globe, even as they yank the chains of the help in their own back yards.
Emma Stone is a vibrant young screen presence, just right as the rebellious Skeeter. Viola Davis is a shining stoic presence as the kindly Aibileen who bears a painful history with quiet courage. Olivia Spencer is feisty and funny as Minnie who serves up a diabolically delicious revenge on her snarling boss Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Jessica Chastain gains our sympathy as the voluptuous Daisy Mae-like Celia Foote who is spurned by Hilly and company. Celia’s big scene at the charity ball is, however, awkwardly directed. But Sissy Spacek steals every scene she’s in as Hilly’s hilariously dotty mother who still has enough wits to get in the last word. And Cicely Tyson is a heartbreaker whenever she’s on screen. Allison Janney is sympathetic as Skeeter’s cancer-ridden mother who just wants to see her daughter settle down.
But none of these performances is particularly nuanced. All of these characters veer dangerously close to stereotype. And that is the crux of the problem with the film. I wish the movie had retained some of the darkness subtly evoked by the novel: Minnie’s abusive husband, or the real life and death risks these women were taking by speaking up in the Jim Crow south.
But THE HELP is worth seeing– and I will never tire of what it is trying to say, however conventionally.