I can honestly appreciate that many, myself included, are progressive enough in 2011 that we can take issue with a white woman — in this case, novelist Kathryn Stockett — presumptuous enough to speak for an entire race and class of people from an era with which she didn’t belong. But if I may be presumptuous myself, it’s not the book that many of us have an issue with, it’s the idea that these smug suburban soccer moms on both sides of the political spectrum can claim ownership of the novel, who believe that by reading The Help and sympathizing with it, they have fulfilled their anti-prejudice obligations, who can say, “I understand racism. I have read The Help!”
Reading The Help is the new, “I have a black friend.” Like, Eat, Pray, Love, it’s an easy shortcut to a GAP brand of Enlightenment.
But here’s the thing: The Help differs from Eat, Pray, Love in one glaringly important respect: It’s not about finding yourself; it’s not as selfish as that. It’s about racism. Sometimes we need to be reminded of a black and white world if we are better to understand the grey in which we live. Racism is no longer codified, but in many parts of the country, it’s still an institutional problem. Separate but equal no longer exists officially, but in small and large towns all over the South, black people live on one side of the railroad tracks and the white people live in another. I grew up in one of those towns. Depending on the company I was in, the other side of the tracks was either called The Hill or Ni**ger Hill. So far as I know, things haven’t changed much in the decade since I left.
That’s why books like The Help, and their cinematic adaptations, still matter. There is nothing subtle about The Help. The racism is stark and oversimplified, but it is no less ugly. Occasionally, we need to see that harsh contrast to better understand the grey, to understand why black people, 65 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, still live on the other side of those tracks, where only just recently a second road was finally paved to give those residents an escape route should one of the many cardboard houses up on The Hill catch fire. We need to see the historical extremes to better understand the nuances of contemporary racism, even if those extremes are presented by Dreamworks and feature the star of Easy A.
As for the film? Good God, y’all. It is mawkish. There is a mother with cancer, an unnecessary romantic subplot, an abusive wife, a miscarriage, rousing music, and a small inspirational Hallmark speech in every other scene. Yet, it would take a much stronger man than I to come out of The Help with dry eyes. If it doesn’t catch your tear ducts off guard in one scene, it’ll pounce on them in the next. But if you strip all the manipulative devices away, The Help still works as a small story about a group of maids living in Jackson, Missippi in the 1950s. It works well.
Set against the burgeoning civil-rights movement, The Help concerns itself with the maids who worked in white women’s houses, who made their dinners and raised their children, and who were yet still treated as slaves. The only difference was that they got a wage for their efforts, albeit a tiny one.
Enter Skeeter (Emme Stone), recently graduated from Ole Miss. She takes a job as a reporter for the local Jackson paper and soon finds herself wanting to write about the maids’ perspective. Naturally, finding anyone willing to speak out against their white employees and risk losing their job — or worse, violence — is difficult, but eventually Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) steps forward, and soon after, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). Standing in their way is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the Junior League, who are attempting to get a law passed requiring that homes be equipped with separate bathroom facilities for maids.
Piled on top of the central storyline are a few extraneous ones, provided to make it palatable, less uncomfortable, and more entertaining to mainstream audiences. Skeeter’s Mom (Alison Janney) has cancer and she’s withholding a secret about their own maid; Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is dealing with rumors about her supposed white-trash ways; and Skeeter herself is attempting to deal with the complicated relationship she has with her mother, as well as fighting against the role laid out for her as a Southern woman in the 1950s.
Ultimately, The Help overcomes the platitudes and the sentimentality for a couple of reasons: First and foremost are the remarkable performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who capture the roles of Southern black maids without reducing them to caricatures. (Note that Minny’s Mhmmhmm in the trailer is the only one in the film, and the use of it as a marketing tool to sell the movie is a crass and manipulative ploy to draw to theaters crowds of white people who want to see black women depicted in ways that make them comfortable.) Moreover, Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the racist Junior League president, is nasty. Viciously nasty. Not a moment goes by when you don’t loathe the woman and want her to choke on her own hate.
Despite what you think of or have heard about the book, the film is also re-framed as Aibileen and Minny’s story, and not as Skeeter’s story about Aibileen and Minny. It’s an important distinction because, at least in the film, it removes the white perspective and trades it in for testimonials from the maids themselves. Emma Stone is good as Skeeter, but in The Help, she’s mostly reduced to a one-note vehicle to tie all these people together instead of the voice that speaks for them all. In a way that also works to the benefit of The Help in that it creates more dimension for the black characters than for Skeeter.
But what really makes The Help a success is the villain. It’s not a superhero or an arch-nemesis or a criminal mastermind. It’s not even Hilly Holbrook herself. The real evil in The Help is hate. There is enough power in that hatred as presented in the film to make almost anyone indignant, furious. And there is nothing more satisfying in film than to witness kindness overcome hate, to see hate gets its motherfucking comeuppance. It doesn’t matter what color the person is who presents it.
Places like Jackson, Mississippi haven’t changed all that much since the 1950s. Racism still exists; it’s simply taken a different, more subtle, almost more insidious form. Many of us who grew up in the area were surrounded by racism, by racist parents and grandparents, and by racist classmates. Some of us witnessed the ugliness frequently, grimaced, held our tongue, and checked out as soon we were able. Maybe The Help, even with its maudlin sentiment and hokey contrivances, will in its own small, Hollywood kind of way, encourage people — black, white, or brown — to stick around, to stop holding their tongues, and voice those grimaces. Change it from the inside instead of shaming it from afar.
It’s easy to cynically dismiss The Help as the condescending efforts of a privileged white woman, and perhaps many of you will. But it’s more challenging and rewarding to separate the book from the reader, to tease out the message, and to take heed of the courage of the people the novel and the film represent.