Friday, August 19, 2011

The Help

The movie version of Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, avoids one of the book’s main problems: Stockett’s inartful use of dialect in depicting the first-person narratives of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. To some readers’ dismay, the book is rife with “Law have mercys” and “Don’t you go sassing this white lady like you done the other.” Unless you are William Faulkner or Truman Capote or Flannery O’Connor, Southern black dialect is probably a thing you should avoid.

The movie, however, adapted and directed by Tate Taylor, places the dialogue in the mouths of some fine actresses, and the effect is much more natural than Stockett’s clunky prose on the page. The film gets more directly to the heart of the story, which is about the uncomfortable and often dangerous pre-civil rights relations between the races, focusing especially on the black women who cook, clean and raise the children of white women who treat them like chattel -- and sometimes like disease-carrying aliens.

Some of the maids have raised generations of children, whose children grow up to be just like them – heirs to a corrupt system of white privilege and de facto slavery. Stockett, a native of Jackson, based the book on her own childhood experiences of being largely raised by a kindly and supportive black maid.

In the story, Stockett’s stand-in is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone, an inspired casting choice but not the least Southern), a recent college graduate with ambitions to be a novelist. She lands a job at a daily newspaper answering housekeeping questions, a subject that leads her to consult with the various maids employed by her “society” friends.

Skeeter has a special affinity for “the help”; her childhood confidante and comforter was her family’s maid, Constantine (the redoubtable Cicely Tyson), who left the family’s employ while Skeeter was away at school. Skeeter’s childhood chum Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the meanest white lady in town, tries to enlist Skeeter in a repulsive campaign to pass a law requiring maids to use outhouses rather than sully the bathrooms of their white employers. Skeeter will have none of it.

Skeeter interests a New York editor (Mary Steenburgen) in a book written from the perspective of black maids, and enlists the reluctant Aibileen (Viola Davis), the feisty Minny (Octavia Spencer) and a dozen other maids to tell their stories of their lives and their work in the service of white people, a truth-telling endeavor that is dangerous in early-‘60s Mississippi – the state condemned for its racist cruelty in songs by Phil Ochs and Nina Simone (“Mississippi Goddam”). The film effectively surrounds the personal stories with socio-historical context; we see police harassment of black people, maids accused of stealing, and a group of black household servants solemnly watching the news of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, prompting Skeeter’s mother (Allison Janney) to angrily turn off the television (“Don’t encourage them!”). Skeeter’s research acquaints her with some of the more absurd segregationist legislation on the books; Minny teaches her daughter, who was forced to quit school and work as a maid, to set the coffee down when serving it to the white people, because “your hands can never touch.”

The movie’s emotional center is Hackett’s sympathy for the unique relationships between black women and the white children they raise, a circumstance still prevalent today. One of Skeeter’s first questions of Aibileen is, “How does it feel to raise white people’s children while your own children are being looked after by someone else?” (Studs Terkel’s books offer African American women’s real-life narratives about this experience.) The movie is at its best when dramatizing these emotional bonds: Abileen teaching her charge, a chubby, neglected toddler she calls Baby Girl, the empowering mantra: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” and the little girl crying piteously when Aibileen – her “real” mama -- is banished from the house. Equally agonizing is Skeeter’s discovery of the reason Constantine left her mother’s employ, an act of thoughtless bigotry that can never be rectified.

While it attains great emotional heights, Stockett’s storytelling also plumbs the depths of taste. As the aforementioned toilet story suggests, the author has an unfortunate predilection for bathroom themes, not all of which make it into the movie. Here, from the book, is one maid’s perspective on “Gone With the Wind”: “If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her white little pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress.” It’s emblematic of the author’s style that the movie’s climax (spoiler alert) involves an act of revenge using a pie baked with human feces, a plot device that is more psychotic than humorous, and does nothing to enhance the dignity of the characters.

The movie bears the hallmark of its Disney origins, with a slick faux period style reminiscent of a TV miniseries. In attempting to squeeze an entire novel into a film – even at the numbing length of 137 minutes – some plot elements and characters (like Hilly’s mother, played by Sissy Spacek) are merely sketched in. Others are caricatures, like Hilly, who can’t be just a racist but must also be an absolute monster, a tendency to exaggerate that afflicts many movies about race made by white people (see also The Color Purple and Precious). While the movie has a superb cast and contains many deeply moving scenes, these qualities are undermined by cartoonishness and Stockett’s inexplicable latrine fixation.

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