I love Viola Davis because she was an Upward Bound and Student Support Services student and she’s publicly said how those experiences transformed her. This does not lead to a sentence with a clause beginning with but. Instead, she’s been incredible in everything in which we’ve seen her and she is again in a major role in The Help. Kathryn Stockett’s novel was what has become a rare thing: a mainstream, literary historical novel that has been liked by readers and respected by reviewers. It’s a page-turner, but it feels important. It’s the epitome of a successful, liberal minded middlebrow work and in this context that’s a good thing. This will sound like a contradiction, but it’s a memorable work that may not
last in my opinion. I feel similarly about Angela’s Ashes and House Made of Dawn. It’s because they’re considered classics before they’ve had a chance to prove over time that they are.
The movie follows the book closely, which will please fans, though that is also the epitome of a middlebrow definition of adaptation success. Tate Taylor is the writer-director and I think it was his intention to abnegate his own voice in favor of his friend Stockett’s vision. This is a mirror image of the sexism that is a major theme of the movie. It’s the acting that connects strongly with the audience in a similar way to the three ‘voices’ that told the story in the novel. It’s set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963 where a recent college graduate, Skeeter, wants to start a career as a writer. She does this through taking over a housekeeping column but, because of her inherited white privilege, she has to interview a friend’s maid and that turns into interviews about the maid’s life and the lives of other maids. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are both electrifying as the maids (Aibileen and Minnie) that are best friends; metaphysically, it’s not just their characters that are grasping the brass ring, it’s the actresses realizing their potential and full creativity. Some have complained that the roles are archetypes or stereotypes, depending on whether they liked it or not. I disagree. Davis and Spencer explore many complexities. Two examples would be Davis’s final speech to the little girl she’s raising and her interaction with Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, the villain, before her final walk into the end credits and Spencer’s reactions to the gooey and unintentionally ironic keynote speech Hilly gives during a charity event for starving children in Africa no less.
|Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer|
The movie reminded me of The Women (1939 version) and The Long Walk Home for completely opposite reasons and it gets into the dichotomy of the movie. The middle and upper class white women are all about pecking order and their maids are the easiest ones for them to keep down so that even the least of them can feel better about herself and the next easiest are their children. It’s the generational pecking that has left Skeeter, played with grit by Emma Stone, with the motivation to find herself as opposed to Elizabeth, in a selfless performance by Ahna O’Reilly, to cede all of her will to Hilly. There is the possibility for union among the women, but only on a limited basis. Skeeter goes on to literary possibilities in New York; Minnie has the perfect position as long as she’s willing to remain as a maid; but Aibileen’s final walk is not exactly one of triumph. She may not be able to find a position and we don’t know how much of a shot she has at being a writer or something else, though we have seen that she is a person of profundity. It’s implied that she and Minnie will throw in their lots together and that gets into a larger question.
As in The Long Walk Home where Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg played employer and maid during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, a lightning rod for the Civil Rights movement, and Spacek started picking up Goldberg so that she wouldn’t have to break the boycott, the power is held by the men, not the women. So although The Help is about racism, it’s also about sexism and how members of a group with little power will work even more desperately to retain it. Howard is fearless as Hilly because she has the guts to reveal Daddy’s little lost girl behind the mask of the vicious Queen Bee of Segregation. Even Mary Steenburgen as Elain Stein, the New York editor who might publish the characters’ book, has to flirt and play with the guys in order to keep her position. Can Steenburgen do almost every accent? She’s almost sixty and she looks terrific – her legs alone deserve a credit.
One problem with both the book and the movie is the failed love interest for Skeeter. We don’t give a fig for him because the possible societal transformation and its major risks are much more compelling than whether Skeeter can get a second date. There’s been a lot of discussion, some of it originally raised by Stockett, about whether it is politically palatable for a white writer to tell an essentially black story and, therefore, for a member of a privileged group to patronize members of an oppressed group by giving them a voice, as if they couldn’t do it themselves. Would a black writer have been published and found such overwhelming success with a similar story? The implication for political detractors is probably not. However, Tyler Perry is extremely successful financially by telling black stories yet he rarely seems to be taken seriously in terms of reviews or awards. He provides substantial opportunities for black actors to work and The Help has done the same for black and white female actors. The political implications may be difficult to swallow, but there’s no getting around the fact that the message has been put out there with craft and power.