This movie has been in theaters for more than a month; I'm not sure why I didn't go see it when it first came out. Maybe it was because I didn't see any trailers for it while we were watching other movies earlier in the year; maybe (well, not really maybe) it was because the movie posters advertising it were on the ugly side, looking trite and overwhelmingly yellow.
I'd read the book by Kathryn Stockett earlier in the year, after Wendy Robards' glowing review, but so many screenplays lose so much from the original stories, that I had no expectation that the movie would carry the tension and weight of injustice that was intrinsic to the story.
The suckiness of Hollywood carries weight.
But I was jonesing for popcorn, and I'd read quite a few reviews that praised The Help for the acting, and the weather report forecast a hideous 100 degrees ... well, that would get me to an air-conditioned movie theater as long as the movie wasn't too bad.
The popcorn was okay, the AC was nice, and The Help was superb.
The 1960s were a horrible time, a time of transition in a psychotic society. I remember it from my childhood: intolerance and inhumanity were still ingrained in people's behavior, and no one thought to examine their bigotries in terms of morality. Indeed, if someone had challenged another by calling their approach to race or disability "bigotry," the challenger would have been told, "Bigot? What bigot? Niggers is niggers and retards is retards. Ain't you got eyes in your head?"
I've read reviews that condemn The Help as being just another "Magical Negro" story -- that is, a tale in which white folks find that a black/negro/African-American has some amazing wisdom or the hero's role in solving a conflict. I don't agree, for the black maids whose stories are told are living in a time when being different, when being counter-cultural, didn't make you a hero: it got you ostracized, or beat up ... or in the case of racial issues in Mississippi, it got you killed.
In this respect, The Help as movie did far more than The Help as novel. When we watch Skeeter crouch in Abilene's kitchen, listening to her tales of her life as a black maid to white families, the tension is palpable, and the door and windows are enemies -- what if someone sees them together, talking? And when they meet on the street, who is watching, who will betray their conversation?
I think that I would like to own this movie on DVD, and make our granddaughter watch it periodically to see what following the socially-adept crowd can do to those who are on the outside of the clique.
When I was a kid, every Sunday afternoon there was a movie shown on one of the local television channels, one of the "older" movies from the 40's and 50's. I've never really done an in depth study of it, but it seemed to me that most of the movies made in that era were war movies -- at least that's the way it seemed to me. Dad liked them, so that's what we watched.
The thing about these movies was that while they were inspired by real events, they weren't too concerned with realism. There was no spurting blood, no excessive profanity, no nudity. They were costume plays. The good guys were portrayed as better and smarter than they really had been, and the bad guys were portrayed as more simple-mindedly worse than they really had been. Some of the movies were good, some were pretty bad. They were made however, because there was a fascination with the experience of the war. For years afterwards, there remained in our society a need to remember that there had been a reason that so much had to be sacrificed. There was a need to eulogize the dead and to idolize the survivors.
Some events in our lives are like that -- they can't be forgotten; they shouldn't be forgotten. Things like falling in love, getting married, the birth of child, the death of a loved one, war, natural disasters, seeing Elvis long after he was thought dead. The stories about these things are important to us, because these events are what make us the person we are right now. We tell the stories only in part because of what happened back then. We do it because in the telling, we bring the past forward to the present; we tell the story because as it unfolds in the here and now it sheds light on our present actions. We tell and retell the important stories because they warn us of the consequences of our actions or inactions.
Lots of things can go wrong in this type of story telling. The story teller can forget the purpose of the tale and lose focus. War stories can become gruesome tales that glorify aggression instead of cautionary tales that help us to understand the necessity, limits and cost of bravery. Those who listen to these stories can forget that they are being invited to participate in the telling, that they have a responsibility to enter into the process, to bear their part of the burden of pulling these events out of the past. Instead, they want only to be entertained.
The Help is a fictional tale of one of those times in our past that should never be forgotten. It tells of a time when people could be treated as livestock because they were different. It is the story of race relations in the South in the 1960's, of bigotry and love, and of the courage of a handful colored maids and a white woman to speak out and tell the truth. Their method of speaking out is to collaborate in the writing of a book that chronicles what it was like to be a black maid in the white households of Jackson, Mississippi.
It is a fictional tale about one small aspect of a much broader issue. It is no more a story of the civil rights movement than The King's Speech was the story of World War II, yet just as we know that the unseen war is about to engulf King George in the The King's Speech, we are every bit as aware that there is an inevitable conflict of values erupting around the main characters in The Help.
Does The Help succeed in shedding light on extraordinary events of the 1960's? Emphatically yes, and probably not well enough. Like the war films of my youth, where there was always the gruff-talking sergeant and the Irish kid from Brooklyn, the characters in The Help have been pulled off the rack of the costume department -- but that doesn't mean that they were not well done, and that doesn't mean they are fake. They are shorthand; they are cues. Like religious rituals, they are powerful tools for the initiates, but they can be irrelevant to outsiders. If there is a criticism of the movie, it could be said that it did not go deep enough, it was not graphic enough to adequately convey to a younger generation the true ugliness of racism. Then again, I do not believe that was the intention of author of the book (who wouldn't even be born until years after the events in the story), or the movie makers.
Leaving politics out of the equation for the moment and just looking at the movie, The Help is a well-done drama depicting the human drama of the haves and the have-nots. It is a solid, although admittedly not inspired, story, made into a well-paced, well-made movie. It has very good acting from the principals. Viola Davis imparts a dignity to the role of Aibilene that simply would not have been there with a lesser actress, Emma Stone shows surprising depth, Bryce Dallas Howard is easily and thoroughly hateable, Octavia Spenser charms as Aibilene's friend and co-conspirator, and Jessica Chastain in the supporting role of Celia Foote turns in a performance that is absolutely remarkable when compared to her other appearance on the screen this season as Young Rachel in The Debt.
I would like my granddaughter to see this movie. She won't know exactly what it was like back then after seeing this movie, but there is enough of the story there, and it is done well enough, that she would (I hope) be moved to ask if that's what it was really like. It is done well enough that she could glimpse the courage it took to try to change things.
Man's inhumanity to man is a subject worth revisiting from time to time. The past needs to be pulled forward and held as a measure against the present. We need to remember that there is a reason that so much has been sacrificed. There is a need to eulogize the dead and to idolize the survivors.