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On Movies: 'The Help' works well

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2011 - When a novel as popular as "The Help" is made into a movie, people are curious as to how the movie stacks up to the book. Such questions, which go beyond the scope of the movie as a work in itself, are theoretically irrelevant to serious film critics.

Guess that leaves me out.

Given the limitations of the film medium, writer-director Tate Taylor's gives a reasonably true reading of his friend Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel, "The Help." The book was melodrama, but melodrama with a soul, and so is the movie. The book was surprisingly funny, despite its serious topic -- the routinely appalling treatment of black servants by white employers in the Deep South in the early 1960s -- and so is the movie.

The book and movie have been accused of stereotyping. I don't disagree that some characters could have come out of a box labeled "Superficial Southern Stock," but the stereotyping at least falls as heavily on the white characters as it does on the blacks. One white woman -- the vindictive young housewife Hilly Holbrook, played in the movie by Bryce Dallas Howard -- is such a nasty piece of work she eventually extrudes a stigmatic herpes sore from her upper lip. Every time Hilly came on screen, I thought of Cruella De Vil and wanted to hiss.

The movie -- I'll spare you any more comparisons with the book -- is shamelessly manipulative, and a soaring and plunging musical soundtrack is always there to remind you how you are supposed to feel about the tragic and farcical things that are happening on the screen. But I have to admit the manipulation works -- I enjoyed the movie, and even thought it had a sometimes surprising level of depth and integrity, despite the cliches.

Perhaps in part because I grew up in the South back in the day, and was partly raised by a black woman who worked for my grandmother, I thought the movie, despite its flaws, captured something true and important about relations between the races below the Mason-Dixon line in the middle of the 20th century -- how close we were and yet how tragically far apart. It also illustrates a truth that is only obvious in retrospect: Whites thought they understood blacks, but they didn't have a clue. Blacks, on the other hand, understood whites all too well.

"The Help" is the story of a young white Mississippi woman named Skeeter (Emma Stone) who aspires to be a writer. It is also the story of two black maids -- the wonderfully sarcastic, dauntless Minny (Octavia Spencer) and the less assertive Aibileen, played by Oscar nominee Viola Davis. They finally decide they can trust Skeeter and agree to join her in a book project by writing down the real stories of what it was like to be virtual slaves to the prosperous white people in town.

"The Help" is also about Skeeter's coming of age and finally seeing her white friends for the poisonous set of racist hypocrites they are.

Central to the movie is an essential paradox, one of many, in the relationship between Southern whites and their black servants. Aibileen has raised 17 white children with love; and yet, she tells Skeeter, when the children grow up, they turn out to be just like their parents in their attitudes toward blacks.

The nasty, unthinking racism of the adults is skillfully captured in an ongoing plot device that ties together various episodes in "The Help."

For some whites in the movie, a drawback of having a black house servant is that the servant at some point needs to use the toilet. One of the young women in the social whirl of Jackson, Miss., a childhood friend of Skeeter, is trying to promote a law that would force any homeowner who employs a black house servant to provide the servant with a separate toilet. Whites discuss the "problem" and its ludicrous solution at the dinner table, going into some detail about the imaginary diseases that might be passed from race to race, without apparent awareness of the maid standing there, unable not to hear the conversation. The maid has just cooked and served dinner and changed the baby's diaper. Sheer madness.

"The Help" has a solid cast that includes Sissy Spacek as an elderly woman who is crammed into a nursing home before her time by her social-butterfly daughter; Allison Janney as Skeeter's alcoholic mother, guilt ridden about her mistreatment of the black woman who raised Skeeter; and Jessica Chastain as Celia, a giddy but decent young woman from the wrong side of the tracks who has married a rich young man and is dismissed as "white trash" by the young matrons of Jackson. It is not entirely a surprise when Celia turns out to be pretty much a mensch who treats "the help" like human beings.

Black and white television sets inform us from time to time that propitious events in the burgeoning civil rights movement are occurring, including the notorious murder of civil rights leader Medger Evers right there in Jackson. (An historical irony: The main airport in Jackson is now named for Medger Evers.) But the focus is on the racial war that is being fought beneath the placid surface of Skeeter's affluent social circle. There are more than a few cliches, and there's some overreaching for drama and humor, but the movie has vitality, several strong characters, good acting, and, as I said, soul. All in all, despite its problems, the movie version of "The Help" is almost as enjoyable as the book and very much like it. Since you asked.

Opens Wed., Aug. 10

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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