Jackson, Mississippi, looks gorgeous in The Help: stately Southern mansions sit amid Delta farmland, pecan trees shade mid-century ranch houses, and the white ladies (because they are definitely “ladies”) go about the business of playing cards and ruthlessly enforcing the status quo while wearing the most sensational New Look styles – all cinched waists and bouffant helmet hair. The black maids wear their prim uniforms with dignity.
So it would be easy to think of this movie as just another Hollywood version of white hero (or in this case heroine) “saving” the black people from oppression, writes Jennifer Howze.
In this case, the saviour would be ‘Skeeter’, the university graduate with dreams of becoming a writer. She returns to her family home and eventually writes a book about the stories and experiences of the maids that clean the white folk’s homes and raise their children.
Yet The Help gets beyond that tired old formula and I liked both the book and the movie for several reasons:
- This is a story about the world of women. There are men in the film, but they are secondary to the concerns, power plays and trials that the women experience. While romance and marriage are important, they aren’t the central struggle in the lives of these characters.
- The cast is full of interesting female actors of all ages – the excellent Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, Bryce Dallas Howard as the evil Hilly, Emma Stone as Skeeter, Mary Steenburgen as a foxy New York publisher, as well as Sissy Spacek, Octavia Spencer, the list goes on. I have a special place in my heart for True Blood alums Anna Camp (who played Reverend’s wife Sarah Newlin in the vampire series) and Nelsan Ellis (who is True Blood’s flamboyant Lafayette and gets an honourable mention in this best actress list).
- But the real power of the film lies with Viola Davis. Davis is so subtle yet powerful in her portrayal the maid Aibileen she gives the movie its heart. (And if you haven’t seen her scene-stealing role in Solaris, go rent it now.)
- The film is fiction, but it generates real conversations. After the screening in London, a friend and I talked about racism and its various forms in the US and the UK. I originally saw it in Texas with my parents, and afterward we sat on the back porch for an hour while they told me their recollections of integration at their university. I heard about my grandfather, a teacher, standing up to his school’s administration to compel them to hire a black teacher on equal terms to the white ones. And we talked about “the help” we had had when I was young.
A woman who lives in Greenwood, Mississippi, where The Help was filmed, gives an interesting perspective of how instead of inflaming tensions, the movie inspired new conversations and perspectives on a shameful part of American history.
I’ll let you know right now – I’ve seen the movie twice and the waterworks poured both times.
Perhaps my one disappointment with the film is that it leaves out a key scene from the book: between Celia Foote – the poor-girl-made-good who has been ostracized by the queen bees – her maid Minny and a local doctor. It demonstrates that the power that women had – white or black – was all relative. This scene solidifies Celia and Minny’s close relationship and goes some way to explaining why the petty junior league politics dominate these women’s lives – because it is the only realm they truly control.
The screening I went to was chockfull of BritMums bloggers, which was a great opportunity to have a glass of wine and talk blogs. They had some great things to say about the film as well.
Our imaginary mum-blog film poster would feature these blurbs:
Richmond Mummy: “Easily one of the best films I’ve seen in a long long time”
WitWitWoo: “Real laugh out loud moments”
Sian at Geek Is the New Chic: “If you liked Fried Green Tomatoes, you’ll love this movie”
— Jennifer Howze, BritMums co-founder, www.jenography.net