If you haven’t already read The Help, chances are you know someone in a book club who has. Kathryn Stockett’s novel about white women and their black maids in 1960s Jackson, Miss. has been a massive bestseller since its release in February 2009 and continues to sit pretty at the top of the charts.
But as widely beloved as the novel has been, it’s also been shadowed by controversy. After all, The Help is a book written by a white woman, in which a young, privileged white woman empowers and elevates a town’s black population by getting a book published about their experiences. The black characters’ thick dialect raised some eyebrows (“I reckon that’s the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns”), and a lawsuit filed by an African-American nanny and housekeeper who claims Stockett appropriated her identity exacerbated the book’s already “squicky” racial politics, as Salon’s Laura Miller called them.
Audiences will have another opportunity to appraise Stockett’s Jackson when the film adaptation of The Help, directed by Tate Taylor, opens in theaters tomorrow. The movie is getting a push from many African-American groups and community leaders, including the chairwoman of the NAACP, who tout the film as a rare example of a high-profile, mainstream entertainment starring strong black women. If the screening I saw last week is any indication, the brightly colored drama is guaranteed to be an audience pleaser, and it comes with an unimpeachable moral message: It’s bad to be a racist. But critics are asking: Just how progressive is it?
One of the key questions is to what extent the film represents Skeeter Phelan—the young Junior League member who is one of the novel’s three narrators, along with maids Aibileen and Minny—as some kind of savior of the women whose experiences she documents in her book. Several critics have grouped the movie with films like Mississippi Burning, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Blind Side, which see “racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism,” as Wesley Morris wrote today in the Boston Globe.
Unavoidably, the film flattens out some of the nuance of the 464-page book. In the novel, Stockett (perhaps hoping to sidestep accusations of Mary Sue-ism) complicates the notion that Skeeter is the story’s heroine by making it clear that Skeeter’s personal career ambitions, as much as—if not more than—her social conscience are what push her to interview her friends and neighbors’ domestic employees. In the film, however, the moral lines are much more brightly drawn. In the novel, Skeeter’s sense of injustice on behalf of Jackson’s maids takes time to kindle, but here her crusading sensibility is established right off the bat. (We know she’s an unconventional thinker because she has wild, curly hair, unlike her peers, with their Stepford bouffants.) The villain Hilly Holbrook, as played by Bryce Dallas Howard, practically glows with cartoonish evil. (We know she’s rotten inside because she gets cold sores.) A character who, in the novel, is both a fine person and a racist—and allowed to inhabit both of those seemingly contradictory roles—gets an over-the-top redemption in the movie. It’s enjoyable, as melodrama can be, and undeniably powerful, but the film doesn’t always capture the “nuanced humanity” that filmmaker and author Nelson George calls for in a New York Times essay about Hollywood depictions of civil rights struggles.
But even if Skeeter is “too idealized” in the film, as Kirk Honeycutt writes in The Hollywood Reporter, there are two other characters in that central trio: Aibileen and Minny. Are actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer “sellouts” (as Davis says she’s been described) for playing maids—even if those maids are depicted as brave, loving, intelligent women? Davis told Essence, in one of many interviews in which she defended her choice to play Aibileen,
Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multi-faceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not take the role because you feel in some ways it's not a good message to send to Black people?
Davis’s and Spencer’s performances are being widely praised as some of the best parts of The Help, and both women give stirring performances that are sure to be recognized come awards season. But, Morris concludes in the Globe, that doesn’t change the fact that
[the] best film roles three black women will have all year require one of them to clean Ron Howard’s daughter’s house. It’s self-reinforcing movie imagery. White boys have always been Captain America. Black women, in one way or another, have always been someone’s maid. These are strong figures … but couldn’t they be strong doing something else? That’s the hardest thing to reconcile about Skeeter’s book and “The Help’’ in general. On one hand, it’s juicy, heartwarming, well-meant entertainment. On the other, it’s an owner’s manual.