Remember that bad old time called the 1960s when the American South was racist, but it all ended thanks to a white girl writing about black maids in Mississippi? Apparently, this is the premise of the film version of “The Help.” The film version, based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett and adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, is as slavishly faithful to the aesthetic details of 1960s Southern tastes in fashion, decorating and decor as AMC’s “Mad Men” is to the New York of the 1960s, but lacks Mad Men’s sensitivity to the political, economic and sociological changes occurring during that period.
The Help is a fairly faithful adaptation of Stockett’s novel, which is not necessarily a good thing. The film version, perhaps inevitably, highlights and emphasizes all the flaws of Stockett’s plot and narrative, while omitting many of the details that made the novel a more balanced, palatable and, at times, even enjoyable read. By focusing most of the attention on the book’s white characters, the black maids Aibileen, played nobly by Viola Davis, and Minny, played by Octavia Spencer (who steals every scene she’s in), become mostly backdrops. Aunjanue Ellis is totally underused as Yule May, although seeing her loveliness on screen again made me ache for the lack of good film roles for black actresses. Within the structure of the film itself, Aibileen and Minnie are the “help,” supporting what is really Skeeter’s coming of age story.
Emma Stone plays Skeeter with the appropriate level of cuteness and naivete, but the utter implausibility of the story’s premise becomes blindly apparent on screen. None of Jackson’s white society women, other than the evil Hilly, recognized themselves in the book within the movie? None of Jackson’s white society women, other than Hilly, exacted any retribution on the maids who participated in the project? The worst thing white women in Jackson did to their maids was build them separate toilet facilities? After Minnie’s “terrible awful” pie incident, there was really a family in town that still let her cook for them?
The casting was also somewhat questionable. Allison Janney is too youthful and robust to convincingly play Skeeter’s mother Charlotte Phelan, a faded Southern beauty queen dying of cancer. There is one scene where we are supposed to believe Janney’s character succumbs to white societal expectations in a way her daughter will not. But in the scene, Janney looks more likely to have told those women to get the f**k out of her home, than to have done what she did. Similarly, Sissy Spacek, playing Missus Walters, Hilly’s elderly, addle-brained mother, instead looks ready to run a marathon, or the country, or both. Bryce Dallas Howard is chillingly effective as Hilly Holbrook, but the cold sore that appears on her lip during the final act of the film is distracting beyond measure.
And as much as I hate to say anything negative about someone as iconic and legendary as Cicely Tyson, it was painful to watch her on screen. Tyson has aged in real life to strongly resemble the 100+ year old former slave Miss Jane Pittman that she played in 1974. Sadly, Tyson has been playing variations of Miss Jane Pittman ever since, and this character was no different. Tyson looked lost at times on screen. Her words were difficult to understand at times, and unlike Jane Pittman, her character is afforded no dignity when she is finally and ultimately insulted by the white family she has worked for most of her adult life.
There’s no room to deconstruct the film’s somewhat disturbing treatment of motherhood, or talk about how the men in the movie were either emasculated or ineffectual, or how there was no such thing as a solid black family, or how domestic violence apparently is only a black problem. These elements are in the book, too, but are balanced out by other parts of Stockett’s narrative in a way absent from the film.
More than questionable casting and adaptation choices, the real problem with the film version of “The Help” is that it fits all too neatly into the Hollywood tradition of black stories being framed and told through the lens of a white character. “The Help” had all the worst elements of “The Blind Side,” “Invictus” and “The Last King of Scotland,” without a powerful story to make up for it.
At the end, when Aibileen walks off, determined to be a writer herself, you wonder how she’s going to pull it off. “The Help” suggests no one would be interested in publishing her story, unless she can successfully masquerade as a white woman telling it.