More than a few times, watching The Help made me feel truly sick.
Like when Skeeter -- a white, progressive journalist -- reads a copy of Mississippi's segregation laws and we hear the details of a codified racism. (Yes, I thought, sadly, so this is my country, land of my birth ...) And when a black maid, who has been telling Skeeter about what it is like to be black and poor in Mississippi in the early- to mid-20th century, becomes terrified when she realizes that, by telling a white woman her story, she has been breaking the law. And when a black person in the town is killed, and one black maid fearfully says to another that they are all trapped and living in hell (yes, this is my country, grandest on Earth ...).
Every country has its shameful periods of history, and this film, about a white woman who writes a book that tells the stories of black maids in her hometown, takes viewers straight into the hatred and violence simmering in the early 1960s in the Deep South. It is also a movie about standing up for what you believe in and female empowerment. And yet, somehow, despite its serious themes, The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's bestselling book-club darling of a novel, is also often laugh-out-loud funny. Somehow, it successfully takes viewers back and forth from the truly ugly reflection in our common societal mirror to moments of amusement and even joy.
The story line is fairly simple, though it also calls for a healthy suspension of disbelief. Skeeter (played by the compulsively likeble Emma Stone), after four years at college, comes home to Jackson and tries getting a job at the local paper. The paper's editor gives her a chance -- she can fill in for the woman who writes a household cleaning advice column. Skeeter, who doesn't know a thing about cleaning, asks her friend Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly) if she can ask Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis), to help her with the column. Pretty quickly, the ambitious Skeeter realizes that she has the makings of a good book: She can show the country, caught up in the naissance of the Civil Rights Act, the maids' point of view, allowing them to share their stories, good and bad, about what it is like to work for white folks -- about how the maids can love the white babies they are paid to raise and be loved right back, and yet, that love is conditional, based on the maids' placid acceptance of a world where they are underpaid and where they are forced to use a bathroom in the back yard so their germs won't contaminate the white family they serve. And so (suspend that disbelief!) the 23-year-old Skeeter calls up a top New York editor (Mary Steenburgen), who gives her the go-ahead to write the book if she can find a dozen maids who are willing to talk about their lives.
Of course, at first the maids are reluctant to share their stories. But a series of more than unfortunate events soon persuades Aibileen, then Minny (Octavia Spencer), then other maids to talk.
Meanwhile, we learn more about what everyday life in Jackson is like for its white middle-class women. They gossip at bridge club. They plan benefits for African children while the black kids in their own town live in poverty. They act like junior high school's meanest girls, ostracizing a woman who married one of the boys they grew up with because they consider her white trash. At the center of this group is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a small-minded woman whom viewers will love to hate. Meanwhile, we also learn more about the nuances of Skeeter's life. Her mom (Allison Janney) is the quintessential steel magnolia -- too often obsessed with what society thinks and yet, a good mom.
If it all sounds stereotypical, that's because it is. This film has some pretty big flaws. Racially speaking, the characters are broad generalizations, the white women unthinking and fearful and the black women noble and brave. Even with the main characters -- Skeeter, Aibileen, Minnie -- we don't get a strong sense of personal motivation or background. (For example, a plot point about Minnie suffering domestic abuse goes absolutely nowhere.) The ending takes too long to wrap up, and there is an overdose of sentimentality to it.
And yet, and yet. This film had me alternately laughing and crying like a baby about to lose the underpaid help who loves her more than her momma does. There are some hilarious lines, a mix of funny and painful scenes, and some outstanding acting (Stone and Janney with their mom-daughter porch scene). Other highlights: Sissy Spacek is wonderful as Missus Walters, and Cicely Tyson says, well, pretty much everything, in one scene that focuses primarily on her hands and eyes.
The Help is entertaining, emotion-driven and tissue-worthy. But it is also a movie that will, so to speak, get under your skin if you let it.
Let it make you feel sick as much as it makes you laugh: The try-this-at-home message of The Help, a message that almost gets lost in sentimentality, is that powerful, large-scale change starts with personal, small-scale journeys into the bold.
Yes, this was our country, and it still is. And if we want to see the times keep a-changin', The Help shows us that change starts with the Skeeter and the Aibileen that is each of us.
Catherine Mallette, 817-390-7828