I went to see The Help yesterday, the day it premiered in London. I imagine there is little point in saying this, but for those who have not seen it, or not heard of it (well, there might be a few!), it’s a comedy drama set in the segregated South of the sixties, based on Kathyrn Stockett’s novel of the same name.
It’s my kind of movie, one that deals with serious and interesting themes in an adult way, one that has a serious and interesting story to tell, one that’s so much more a shallow fest of special effects or tiresome thrills. I would have gone to see it at some point though perhaps not quite so soon, perhaps not with the same sense of curious urgency. Why, then, did I go with the premiere crowd? Simply because of an article in the Sunday Telegraph, one headed The Film Dividing America, written by Philip Sherwell. I’m going to come to that a tad later but first let me give you a straightforward review.
To begin I should say that I haven’t read the novel, so I have no standard for comparison, though I understand from comments elsewhere that the book is better, which is most often the case.
What I can say is that I thought The Help was a good movie, a lovely combination of melodrama and human interest with some sparkling comic touches. It’s not a great movie; the script is a little too flabby for that, and Tate Taylor’s direction a little less disciplined than it should be. But, my goodness, some of the performances are gold, none more so than that of Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, a black maid with attitude before people knew what attitude was!
It’s the ideal chick flick, my ideal chick flick, and not simply because the action is mostly set in a female world! I was beguiled by so much I saw. Yes, it’s mawkish; yes, it’s manipulative (all the best movies are); yes, it covers so much unpleasantness with a gloss of sugary sweetness. But I don’t care. The movie aims for the emotions and it’s right on target, inducing tears and laughs by turns. I cried, I laughed; it hit my target.
I saw it and I understood it as a perspective movie (hold that in mind; it has an important bearing on what I intend to say later), looking at a particular issue, the racism of the unregenerate South, from a particular set of social and interpersonal relations: that between black maids and their white mistresses.
To my mind the characters recreated some memorable figures from the storehouse of American culture. Minny, for me, was a more contemporary version of Mammy, the housemaid from Gone with the Wind. Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelen, played by Emma Stone, another sparking performance, is a grown up Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, and not just because she serves in the role of a narrator; she has the same intelligent detachment from the world around her.
Skeeter is both part of the privileged white society of Jackson, Mississippi, and yet outside of it, alienated by its callousness, including the callousness of her own mother, responsible for the dismissal of a much-loved maid. She perceives the racism that others do not, the hypocrisy and the cruelty that her contemporaries do not, all married, comfortably housed and wholly reliant on exploited black labour. She is most uncomfortable with the truly awful Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard - the character was awful; her depiction was excellent!), the Wicked Witch of the South, who’s Home Help Sanitation Initiative brings segregation into the home and workplace in the most degrading and humiliating manner.
It’s Skeeter’s alienation from the comfortable world of her upbringing, when the greatest influences, the nurturers and the carers, were the black housemaids, that leads to a new project: she, as a writer, will allow the submerged maids, the underpaid and exploited ‘help’ to speak for themselves.
From tiny voices a roaring storm grows. With some initial reluctance, the maids, headed by Minny, tell Skeeter their various stories, a stream that feeds into the wider consciousness of the day, increasingly shaped by the growing Civil Rights movement. The Help is a superbly acted and emotionally effective movie, an indictment of the old Jim Crow laws of the South, which still manages to be full of simple human warmth that overcomes even the deepest social and racial divides.
But it’s the movie that’s dividing America, so says the Telegraph. I actually think that’s a gross exaggeration. The American reviews I’ve read, both positive and negative, show no deep fractures that I can detect. There are highly critical voices mentioned in the article. There is Wendell Pierce, the star of The Wire and Treme, who has described it as “passive segregation lite that was painful to watch”, that it is a passive version of “the terror of the South.” Then there is Max Gordon, a New York-based writer, who said that it ignored the real heroes of the era by ignoring the real horrors. “This is not the South of lynchings and beatings”, he told the Telegraph reporter, “it’s the comfortable Holywood take of the civil rights era.”
He’s quite right, of course: it’s not the South of lynchings and beatings, but neither is it Mississippi Burning. As I said above, it’s a perspective movie, a view of the past from a particular angle, of unequal and abusive power relations, which was surely far more typical of the times than lynchings and beatings.
The black actors, headed by Spencer, have come out in defence of the movie, criticising the laughable forms of political correctness, based on the assumption that there is only one way of looking at past injustice. I myself see the criticism as a form of maximalism – the insistence that only the big picture will do, that all history has to be gathered in an instant, that there are no small stories to be told. But there are, thank goodness, and there always will be, stories on a simple human level, stories that make for compelling cinema. I think that change does begin with a whisper, not a shout.