The Help – A Review

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.

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18 Responses to “The Help – A Review”

  1. Thembisa Mshaka Says:

    Great post, Carolyn. You’ve confirmed my suspicions and now I wonder if I should support this film to support the Black actors or not!

    • carolynedgar Says:

      I don’t think there’s any harm in supporting the Black actors in this film, but you wish there were better options for Black actors than white savior films like this, or Tyler Perry movies.

  2. Tamara Says:

    This was a really great review. I haven’t read the yet, but the previews had me afraid it would be another magical negro movie. Seems like it is that of film. I think I’ll read the book first so I can completely urban understand the story the author wanted told.

  3. Tiffany In Houston Says:

    This is all kinds of awesome. I will not be seeing this film. I lived it. My paternal grandmother was a domestic for white people for many years, white uniform and nurse shoes included. I wore cast offs from her employers children. They were certain nice people from what I can remember of them as they are dead now, as is my granny but I am not nostalgic at all.

    My granny did what she had to do at the time. She was a hgh school dropout and had limited options. She put my father and my uncle through college as a domestic and I am proud of what she did and where I have come from.

    However, I am not interested in watching another torch song dedicated to sweet old Dixie.

  4. angie writes Says:

    Sadly I feared that this is what would become of the film because I had similar critiques of the book (although I managed to somewhat enjoy the read). I will probably still go to see it in support of Viola et al, but I’m disappointed; though not surprised. Great review.

  5. Valerie A Hawkins Says:

    Adding my “thank you” to the list. I’d vaguely heard of the novel, “The Help,” but never found out what it was about. And then when I heard about the film and its casting, and then especially the lawsuit by Ablene Cooper, I started to put it all together. I briefly entertained the thought that maybe it was told from Viola’s point of view, because why else have an Oscar-worthy actress in such a role–? But ultimately, I knew that in today’s Hollywood there was no way that was the case. Black women barely exist in today’s Hollywood. The backsliding of Hollywood in this area is shameful, stupid, and frightening–and it does NOT reflect where American society is when it comes to race. No, it doesn’t–but don’t think I’m saying that America is now in a highly imaginary “post-racial” ideal because race is ALWAYS going to matter in America; can’t be helped. Yes, there’s still a lot we have to learn about each other, but we are past the cinematic segregation to which Hollywood stubbornly clings. While I love Viola Davis and I’ve been hoping Octavia Spencer would get a chance to shine in something someday — and I didn’t even know Aunjanue Ellis was in the film! — there is no way I’ll be seeing this this movie. I mean, let me tell you how I really feel: “MAIDS–?! WHY ARE THERE STILL BLACK MAIDS ON MY MOVIE SCREEN? IT’S TWO-FREAKIN’-THOUSAND ELEVEN!!”

  6. E Says:

    they also dropped it in august, which in the industry translates to “the month we drop all of our crappy movies so that we can focus on the potential Oscar winning ones.”

    Interesting article; thanks for the read.

  7. acriticalreviewofthehelp Says:

    Hi Carolyn,

    Thanks for your detailed review. I don’t plan on seeing the movie so I’ve been collecting reviews to list on my site http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com
    with your permission, I’d like to include an excerpt of your review and link to it.

    It’ll be interesting what products both HSN and Carol’s Daughter plan on selling (inspired by the movie no less)
    that won’t bring on hard feelings and also the thought that the Dreamworks is thinking purely of profit, and less sensitive about the message of their own movie.

  8. acriticalreviewofthehelp Says:

    Hi Carolyn,

    Thanks for your detailed review.
    I don’t plan on seeing the movie so I’ve been collecting reviews to list on my site http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com
    with your permission, I’d like to include an excerpt of your review and link to it.

    It’ll be interesting what products both HSN and Carol’s Daughter plan on selling (inspired by the movie no less) that won’t bring on hard feelings and also the thought that Dreamworks is thinking purely of profit, and less sensitive about the message of their own movie.

  9. aly Says:

    this is a really well written take and i am sad that it supports my initial feeling about the movie after seeing a preview the other night. the best parts of stockett’s book were the stories of aibileen, minny, yule may, and “the help” themselves. those stories also took up the bulk of the book. the previews make it clear that these women, who while not real certainly represent scores of real women that experienced far worse than separate toilets, have been reduced to ancillary characters in a story that focuses on the coming of age of the heroic white girl. it strikes me as a perversion of what the novel was even about, and i am genuinely curious what stockett thinks about this adaptation.

    thank you for calling it like it is.

  10. daustin281 Says:

    Excellent review of a movie that had me scratching my fro like, really?? This seems like almost too perfect of a time with what’s going on in America for hollywood to remind us of how they really see blacks. With your permission I’d like to add a link to your review on my WP blog. Thanks for keeping it real.

  11. nylse Says:

    i found you via curly nikki; thanks for the review. i read the book and once i saw the preview i knew alot of the nuances from the book wouldnt make it to the big screen. i have no plans of seeing it.

  12. Minu Sebastian Says:

    I hope that it’s okay to have post your review of “The Help” on my facebook page…I found your review to be thoughtful and insightful unlike the hype over the book and movie. Thank you.

  13. The Help – A Review « Carolyn A. Edgar « madonna-and-child Says:

    […] The Help – A Review « Carolyn A. Edgar. […]

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