I have yet to read the book (I know, I know, I’m behind the times), but I finally saw Tate Taylor’s movie of The Help on my return flight from London. Here are my thoughts, in informal bullet points:
- The cast was uniformly excellent. I had some doubts about Emma Stone in a dramatic role, but she did a good job. Jessica Chastain was wonderful (and looked amazing) as the spacey outcast, Celia, and Bryce Dallas Howard was deliciously bitchy as the villainous Hilly. The real star of the film is Viola Davis, who I’ve loved since I saw her almost non-speaking performance in Far From Heaven (2002). Here, she gets a meaty role that allows her to do subtle but powerful work. She also gets the main voiceover, which made me very happy from a subjectivity standpoint. Even though it’s the white woman doing the publishing, the black woman is telling the story. Also wonderful was Octavia Spencer, who looks incredibly familiar, but I can’t place her in a specific role. I think I’m just so used to seeing her face in her various bit parts. Her angry performance brought a great deal of comic relief to the film without undermining the seriousness of her perspective.
- The pacing and writing are generally very tight. The film is almost two and a half hours but moves along at a swift pace.
- The film did a really lovely job of portraying the relationships between the black maids and their white children. Every time Cicely Tyson was onscreen, she brought gravitas and warmth, and Viola Davis’s scenes with her charge were the center of the film. The most gratifying element of it, from a feminist perspective, is that both Aibileen (Davis) and Constantine (Tyson) are determined to impart messages of strength and self-respect to their girls. Aibileen repeatedly tells Mae Mobley, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” The fact that she worries about the girl’s looks to herself but does not include “You is pretty” in this mantra is significant. The women in The Help know that looks play an important role in our culture, but they are doing their best to give young girls a sense of self-worth beyond the surface.
- Why why why why why did they put this hair on Emma Stone??? I get that they’re trying to make her look plain, but it’s supposedly Skeeter’s natural hair, and yet it looks like a terrible perm gelled to within an inch of its life. There are so many other ways to give her “bad hair” without it being this distracting.
- A number of plot moments didn’t quite ring true. Skeeter’s boyfriend, who supposedly loves her for her intelligence and spunk, leaves her because of her book, telling her that she is “a selfish person.” Not only does this not make any logical sense, but he also has not been shown to be particularly embroiled in the establishment before, so his sudden investment in Jackson society makes no sense. Also, when Celia’s husband suddenly turns out to be the sweetest man on the planet, it feels cheap and undeveloped. For all we knew, he was a bigot like everyone else and, had they taken the time to establish his character earlier in the film (pretty sure we saw his face once before his encounter with Minny), his incredibly understanding stance would have been more believable. The uses of both these men was purely as plot devices. On the other hand, though, it’s a new experience to be saying that about male characters for once…
- Nelsan Ellis, of True Blood fame, was criminally underused in this film. I am the first to admit that True Blood has gotten pretty terrible, but Ellis is an amazing actor, and I would have liked to see more of him in a non-Lafayette capacity.
The Help was a very well-made movie, both thought-provoking and entertaining. It has some treacly lines and silly plot developments, but it does a very good job of exploring ideas of subjectivity, gender, and race. I know the book has been the target of a lot of debates, so I will have to address that when I read it. There are problematic ways you could read the “white women helps black ladies tell their story” message, but the movie means well, and it manages to be genuinely moving without hitting you over the head. At its core, it is a film about harnessing the power of language to gain agency, and that is what these women do.