I’ve been quiet this week for a reason but it’s kind of ironic. I’ve been hanging out with 3,000 other bloggers at a conference called BlogHer in San Diego but I’ve hardly blogged. I have so many posts to write post BlogHer, but I feel compelled to write about The Help, since it premiered in the theaters today. I attended an advance screening hosted by Dream Works, which was a highlight of the weekend, and also a rest from the craziness.
I had a feeling I’d like this movie. I read the book by Kathryn Stockett last year and finished it in 2 or 3 days. I couldn’t put it down. Born and bred in the south, I’ve always had a keen interest in racial relations. I related strongly to the character of Skeeter. When I was growing up, there were still remnants of this period lurking around Atlanta. I rebelled against anyone who had racist tendencies. I remember being glued to the mini-series Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
But I admit I was queasy about seeing a film where black women play maids. It’s a stereotype we don’t need to perpetuate. But the film is much more than that. It addresses civil rights, female equality, being a mom, infertility, domestic violence, class issues, gender relations and most of all, it’s about an important part of history that we can’t ignore.
In the book, the maids do everything for the white women – they cook and serve meals, change diapers, wash clothes, clean the house, clean up shit. What in the world were they doing, you have to wonder? Going to Junior League meetings, making sure their maids don’t sit on their toilets and ignoring their own children. The maids are basically raising the children, and the mothers could care less.
Skeeter is the character I remember most in the book. She’s played by Emma Stone. Right out of college, she takes a job at the Jackson Journal. She has dreams to become a journalist and writer, at a time when most women got married and had children. Her mother, played by Allison Janney, tells her, “Your eggs are dying. Would it kill you go on a date?” But she’s not interested in following her friends’s footsteps, and she comes up with the idea to interview the maids her friends are employing. She pitches her story to a publisher in NYC, played by Mary Steenburgen, and sets her goal to make writing about a novel happen. Her first interview request goes to Aibileen, played expertly by Viola Davis, who then sets her sights on Minny, played by Octavia Spencer. I read that Spencer is a newcomer, and I find that hard to believe. Her performance shoots through your heart.
But interviewing the maids is not as easy as it sounds. During the time of the Jim Crow Laws, which Skeeter studies, black people can’t talk to white people honestly. The punishment could be too severe. But after several incidents that make their blood crawl, the maids start to speak. When they have had enough of being bullied by Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, they let their secrets out. Hilly is responsible for having her friends put colored bathrooms behind their homes. She’s mean. She’s a nightmare, but she’s not the only one. All the white maid owners are bullies. Some are influenced by Hilly to be bullish but nonetheless they are guilty.
Aibileen and Milly share lives of pain. Milly has an abusive husband and a house full of children who can’t escape his torture, and Aibileen’s son was killed several years earlier. The white women they work for don’t help at all and they are made to feel small and worthless. With Skeeter, they laugh, they share, they hope for a brighter future. What they are doing is dangerous, and we are not sure whether more maids will come tell their story until well into the film.
I cried a lot, I have to admit, but I also laughed. Sissy Spacek plays Hilly’s less snobby mother who mocks her repeatedly in front of the maids and provides relief from their sadness. Cicely Tyson’s performance as Skeeter’s former nanny, brought a smile to my face, though her scene is very brief and very sad.
I have to recommend this film to you. For one thing, it’s a faithful adaptation of the book. For another, it’s a film FOR and ABOUT women and it stars amazing women. Every member of the cast clearly cared about this story and put their heart into their performance. My advice: bring tissues and prepare for a well acted and well told story, and a heart-wrenching two hours.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Dreamworks for a preview of The Help but all opinions expressed are my own.