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“The Help”: From the Page to the Screen, Mostly Intact

AAAAthe-helpWhen is a movie less than the sum of its parts? When the parts are played by the astonishing actors Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (and Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, and Allison Janney, for good measure), and the movie in question is “The Help”.

 

By Mitch Silver

 

When is a movie less than the sum of its parts? When the parts are played by the astonishing actors Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (and Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, and Allison Janney, for good measure), and the movie in question is “The Help”.

 

Based on the Kathryn Stockett’s national bestseller and with a screenplay by Director Tate Taylor, “The Help” is set in the Jackson, Mississippi of the early 1960s, just a hundred miles down the road from where 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered a few years earlier for saying "Bye, baby" to a white woman.

 

the-helpGovernor Ross Barnett, who opposed attempts to integrate the University of Mississippi and later went out of his way to shake hands with the man who murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is strictly enforcing the state’s “Jim Crow” laws, including this one: “Any person who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and Negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or imprisonment or both.”

 

When recent Ole Miss grad Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) — who interviews her friends’ maids for the local paper’s “Miss Myrna” household advice column — gets it into her head to write a book about life in Mississippi from the help’s point of view, she’s stepping outside the law and taking her interviewees with her.

 

The novel is really a series of chapter-long monologues, with maids Aibileen Clark (Davis) and Minny Jackson (Spencer) commenting on everything from their employers’ child-rearing (or lack of it) to their cooking (or lack of it). Adapting the book for screen would be tough for anyone, but it seems just beyond the reach of writer-director Taylor.

 

Any adaptation necessarily truncates certain scenes and eliminates whole subplots. But by reducing Skeeter’s on-again, off-again romance with Stuart Whitworth to the vanishing point and crucially changing the story of Skeeter’s black maid, Constantine, Taylor removes some of the story’s gravitas. Or, as one moviegoer put it, he “turned sweet cream into skim milk.”

 

In particular, Taylor makes the maid’s firing by Skeeter’s mother (Janney) less resonant than it is in the book.

 

Still, this film is funny, angry, and poignant by turns. Amazingly, for a picture all about black and white, it’s the male-female fault line that stays with me. In every scene, “The Help” chronicles “the power of the sisterhood”, of whatever color, to negotiate a world in which men have their heavy hands all over the purse strings and the scales of justice.

 

Case in point: Minny’s effort to teach “white trash” Celia Foote (Chastain) how to cook. Celia tells Minny she must be out of the house by 5 every day so her husband won’t know she’s had help. “You mean he doesn’t know you’ve hired a maid? What’s he gonna say when he comes home and finds a black woman in his house?”

 

It wasn’t a change, but something the movie has in common with the novel that reduced it to a B+: when Skeeter’s book is finally published by Harper and Row in New York, it becomes a local bestseller and a scandal among her white friends. Fine. But the book-within-a-book is also titled “The Help”. So when Skeeter Phelan receives praise for her bravery in stepping across the color line, it feels like Stockett is heartily congratulating the real author of a book about black and white Mississippi women … herself.


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