Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Checking out The Help

Having read the novel I was a little concerned about the results of this story's passage to the big screen. All too often we've seen a sensational book absolutely railroaded by the Hollywood machine into something that barely resembles the original. And while I'm certainly of the "don't try so hard to replicate each beat of the story, try to replicate the sense of the thing" school, I was reasonably apprehensive that the film would not be able to hold onto the seedy underbelly and contradictions as the book was allowed to do. So it would be with The Help, I feared, that a novel which managed to catch hold of much of the horror of what went on in 60's Mississippi, would lose its edge as it came to the big screen.

Well, at least I wasn't entirely wrong.

Please don't misunderstand, the novel is by no means hard hitting commentary on the state of the south during John F Kennedy's presidency. And horrible things do happen in the film as well, but there is a certain sense throughout the film that if they would just dig a little deeper...just push things a little bit farther, they would be able to reach the heart of the matter. Much like the way that the housewives of Jackson, Mississippi sweep their racial inequities under the rug, so the film sweeps away the violence of the time, referring to it only in passing. In fact, there is only one scene in the entire film which managed to bring me to tears and much of this was of my own doing.

About midway through the film there is a violent occurrence and all the black passengers on a bus are told in no uncertain terms to get the hell off the bus as they're no longer welcome. Even though there is rioting and violence on the street with confusion and people running everywhere, one of the main characters is forced to run to her home several miles away, through the dark alone. All because she is not worthy of the time it would take the bus driver to drop her at her regular stop. Meanwhile, he offers to drive all the white passengers exactly to where they are going, though they are presumably in very little danger from the KKK.

For those of you who are not aware, the film takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the mid-60's. It follows the lives of three women: Aibileen, Mini and Skeeter. Aibileen and Mini are domestic help to very powerful white women in the city. At this time segregation is the norm and most white homes have at least one domestic helper working for them. Underneath the veil of propriety however these women, who raise their employers babies, cook them meals and clean their homes for next to nothing are treated with little if any respect at all. Enter Skeeter, a recent college graduate who dreams of being a writer and who wants to do something with her life. After being prompted by a "big city editor from new york" to write something personal, Skeeter gets the idea that she wants to write a story about what it's like to be a part of the domestic workforce in Jackson. At this time in history just the idea of a book like this could get anyone involved killed so when Skeeter first brings the idea to Aibileen (who works for a friend of hers) she refuses outright. But slowly the women come to trust one another, and this is where the story truly begins.

Ultimately the film makes some very good points about what went on in much of the United States during that time period and while it is a little soft of touch, it does allow for some instances of character ambiguity. I really did enjoy the film (even though it was very fluffy) but my only real complaint was that certain characters, who in the book are left to be ambiguous, never really taking sides in the matter, are given redemption or condemnation in the film. Of course this is nothing new, commercial films have, for years been unable to allow ambiguity in their characters. You are either good or bad in the world of popular film; there is no in between. But for me, it is in the in-between that all the great characters live...

My rating: 3 start out of 4.


  1. While I agree that the film does not dig as deep as it ought to, you forgot to mention the Viola Davis' performance as Aibileen. Had it not been for Davis, the film would have lacked some emotional cohesion. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain (very different from her role in The Tree of Life) are great, but I wanted a little more hated from Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly. She was a little too "sugar-coated evil" for me. I do think that "The Help" would have benefited from stronger direction and a director who could turn the novel into a film and not just an adaptation.

  2. You're completely right and I am remiss. Viola Davis is one of those actresses who has quietly built a career of well acted supporting roles. With credits from a great many well regarded television shows as well as films like the Oscar winning Doubt, Miss Davis is an obvious talent and a central reason why this film worked.

    The comment about Howard's character was also right on the money in that it ties into my point about ambiguity. In the film Hilly is supreme evil, disguising herself as best she can. In the book, Hilly's character is driven by a genuine belief that she is doing the right thing. Rather than things being motivated by Hilly's need to always be right, she is convinced that she is doing what's best for her family and friends. And isn't that just so very much worse?

  3. I agree, in the film Hilly seems driven by evil and aware what she is doing is wrong, but I feel that the character wholeheartedly believes she in her own truth.