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Catching up on 2011: The Help

March 7th, 2012
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In preparing to write my Top 15 Movies of 2011 list, I made an effort to watch as many 2011 films as I possibly could.   I’ve already written about many of those movies here on the site, but there were many that I saw that I haven’t had a chance to write about yet.  I’ll be trying to remedy that with my “Catching up on 2011” series this week and next.

Let’s start with The Help, the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s acclaimed novel.

As I’m sure most of you know, the novel and the film depict the lives of several African American maids working in wealthy white homes in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.  The story is set in motion when the young, white Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns home to Jackson after finishing college.  After several years away, Skeeter is able to see her town in a new light, and she finds herself shocked at the way the African American “help” is treated by her friends and neighbors, and even by her own mother.  Skeeter’s path eventually crosses with two fascinating African American women, Aibilene Clark (played by Viola Davis) and her friend Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer).

I haven’t read the novel, so my evaluation of The Help is based entirely on the film.  For the most part, I found the movie, which was adapted and directed by Ms. Stockett’s friend Tate Taylor, to be entertaining albeit a bit slight.  There is no question that the story of the generations of African American women who worked as maids/house-keepers/etc. to affluent white families in the South is an important subject.  And I respect the desire by Ms. Stockett and the filmmakers to try to wrap that story in as entertaining a package as possible, so that while we’ll hopefully feel the emotion of the story, we won’t be too depressed by too “heavy” a presentation of the subject-matter.

But I think the filmmakers erred in going a bit too far into the light and fluffy side of town.  (And while it seems to me this is likely a flaw of the source material, as I wrote before I can’t say for sure having not read the book.)  For instance (and there are some small spoilers ahead, but even I knew of this plot twist before watching the movie, without having read the book), there’s the whole matter of the shit-pie that Minny baked for Hilly (played in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard).  Quite a lot of the film’s story hangs on that event, as Hilly’s desire to cover it up is the leverage that Minny and the maids have over her.  But the event is such a ridiculous, silly moment that it totally threw me out of the film.  I couldn’t help but think that, despite her embarrassment, had anything like this ever actually happened in real life, Hilly would have found a way to have Minny arrested or worse.  Because I didn’t buy that moment that the film played for laughs, it totally undermined the rest of the story, because I never could really believe that Skeeter and the maids could get away with publishing their book.

Which brings me to Skeeter.  I think Emma Stone is a terrific young actress, and she puts in a fine performance, but the whole character of Skeeter didn’t work at all for me.  How is it that this one young woman is so pure and so perfect, and every other white person in her town is so horrible??  It’s just way too simplistic.  Skeeter is the driving force behind the story being told, but she doesn’t really have any character, or any sort of narrative arc to speak of.  She’s a sweet, great person when we first meet her, and she’s just as sweet and great at the end of the film.  As the movie goes on, the story tries to give her some drama in the form of the pressure being put on her to get married and settled down.  But do the filmmakers really expect us to care one whit about this rich girl’s love life when compared to the plight of all the African American women working for meager wages and being treated as second-class citizens throughout her town?

I criticized The Blind Side for being a movie about a white person riding to the rescue of a black person, and unfortunately I feel The Help falls into that same trap.  But that’s not even my main criticism.  Yes, I’m not eager to see any more movies about a white person helping “save” a poor black person, but I’m sure stories like that really did happen, and I don’t have a blanket objection to those sorts of stories being told if there’s some truth at their core.  But the problem with the narrative of The Help is that Aibilene and Minny and the other women are all so fascinating, and so powerfully written and acted, that I wasn’t at all interested in Skeeter’s story and frankly I felt she was a distraction from the main point of the film.

Both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, and deservedly so.  They’re so different from one another — each woman brings  an  entirely different energy and character to her role, but they’re both so vibrantly portrayed.  I’ve been piling on the story of The Help, but in the depiction of these two women I think the script is quite strong.  These aren’t cookie-cutter characters, these are fully fleshed-out women, and when The Help works it’s because of these two characters and these two actresses.

I’m not sure what fans of the book will think of this film.  (From what I’ve read, for the most part people seem to have quite enjoyed this adaptation.)  But for me, this was rather a disappointment, particularly considering the importance of its subject matter.  Oh well.

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