The Help, An adaption of the book with the same title by Kathryn Stockett, raised an equally alarming hoard of criticism as the book regarding how the author assembled the dialect, outlined her characters and distorted a very sensitive time period.
For viewers who watched the movie without reading the book or with a lack of knowledge of what the 1960s held for the blacks, it may have seemed like a masterpiece on the silver screen. The movie revolves around a time when racism was at its peak, and where discrimination against the blacks saw its worst. The storyline is constructed around Jackson, Mississippi where the first scene shows Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) busying herself in the kitchen while a faceless woman interviews her. It is later revealed that the interviewer is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) – a young woman who breaks free from the shackles of convention in Jackson of the university-going, no-career woman who settles down with a man.
She finds it within herself to step out of the stereotypical grind to pursue a career in writing (meanwhile working for a newspaper writing the ‘homemaker hints’ column) instead. She gets in touch with an Editor from Harper & Row in New York about writing a book on the confessions of maids that undergo unjust and cruel treatment from their mistresses after bearing witness to disturbing encounters. When observing how the ‘help’ are treated by women in her town, she decides to ask Aibileen first for help in piecing together her novel. Other maids find themselves within a pivotal time that forces them to come forward to put in their two cents about what each one endures as a maid, once fearful events start to unfold.
The movie will have your mouth gaping especially with scenes that include Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the prim and proper head of society meets. Her porcelain exterior though, starts to crack towards the end of the film, stripping away anything that remotely resembles the makings of a lady. The cast chosen for the characters may seem spot-on, but I’m sure many would agree that Emma Stone didn’t do her part much justice. She looked out-of-place, feeble and didn’t fit snugly into her role as an inept woman on a mission to take on something as daring as the movie portrayed.
Critics were quick to pinpoint instances in the novel and movie that were equivocal, where a lot of uncomfortable details were passed over from the novel, before it was made into a movie. For instance, the way in which Aibileen draws likeness to a cockroach that she sees on her kitchen floor caused blacks to take offense to such a comparison. The author also fumbles up on how the character of Medger Evers was killed – where the book says he was ‘bludgeoned’; the movie gets it right as him being ‘shot dead’.
“That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.”
The movie is never stagnant in its flow, with perky scenes like those that include the cheerful, doe-eyed, undiscriminating Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) and the references made of Minny’s fine cooking. You’ll also find humor within the movie’s bleak backdrop with one particular scene that Minny calls the ‘Terrible Awful’ where she bakes one of her infamous pies for ex-mistress Hilly.
As controversial as the basis behind the book and its lack of structure and facts, the movie will delight as well as move you. Nominated in various categories, the film won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (bagged by Olivia Spencer). It should be approached without furrowed eyebrows and a need for argument.