A friend asked me this week, “So did you like The Help?” We’re all used to the question. It’s a familiar entree into a discussion about a particular movie—or it can also be an opportunity to give a short answer and move on. It comes as no surprise to you that most of the time I already have a position in mind before the question is asked. It’s just what I do. But where The Help is concerned, when I looked at my friend, ready to give an answer, I was unable to answer the question. I couldn’t answer the question because I’m having a difficult time responding to The Help, written and directed by Tate Taylor and based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett.
The Help is a very well-crafted movie. The stakes are high—survival, identity, even life and death, the story compelling, and the characters are strong. The photography is sufficient but director Tate Taylor seems to get enough out of his ensemble cast to make up for a lack of memorable shots. (But with emotionally charged material like what we’ve got in The Help, the “Don’t blow it” rule is definitely in play.) There are several really good performances but I thought Cicely Tyson (Constantine) and Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly) were the most powerful. It’s also worth noting that I enjoyed my first Emma Stone experience and thought Viola Davis was effective in her role as Abileen Clark, the impact character that tends to drive the story. With ten nominations for Best Picture these days … who knows. It wouldn’t be a shocker to see The Help make the list in February. This movie feels important.
So I guess you could say that, yes, I liked the movie for its artistic and cinematic merit. Its content, however, left me a tad disconcerted. The Help is one of those films that rolls the proverbial snake over to reveal its terrible underbelly. The snake in this case is 1960s Jackson MS. And the underbelly is the servile industry of Jackson’s urban elite—or maybe its middle class. Regardless, there is a gentile crowd whose insensibility is on display as perhaps the most natural and subtle form of depravity I can remember seeing on the big screen. As a result I’ve had a really difficult time taking a position on this movie. On the one hand I believe that it’s healthy and productive to revisit even the most painful moments of our past. There are lessons both to be learned and remembered. On the other hand there is a part of me that very much wants to put issues like those raised in The Help to bed once and for all.
And then there’s the tension that emerges from the nature of this fiction. I’ve got to give Stockett and Taylor credit for their creativity. Technically speaking, The Help had a touch of Renaissance drama story-within-a-story to it that gives it a classic vibe. I love what this kind of presentation asks of its audience, too. But a message this strong and sensitive needs more spine than mere fiction has to offer. In other words, writers don’t have to work hard to make a community, people group, or in this case entire region look bad. It’s easy. Accordingly I really wish this story wasn’t made up. And then I catch myself thinking that and feel ashamed because the better thing to wish for is that it never happened. I think maybe that the net effect is that it feels less than honest to me. Not that Stockett isn’t justified or that the ethos is inaccurate—because it definitely is true of 1960s South and most likely still true to a greater extent than what anyone cares to admit today—but that these nameless and faceless individuals deserved their own voice. Not Stockett’s. This is not criticism of the author or her craft. It’s just commentary.
As a child of the South I’m familiar with the peculiar servile industry The Help uses to advance its plot. I can remember adults of my early adolescence working alongside black women of the day. It seemed benign enough to me. I certainly do not remember any uncomfortable moments and do not recall the tension that is definitely present in the movie. And that is what bothers me. William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson concluded that his Aunt Rosa told him the story of the south over and over because “we breathe the same air.” Collectively, the South has come into a unique ownership of this problem. In the end The Help isn’t about what’s going on in the movie or what may or may not have happened in 1960s Mississippi or any kind of statement that may be made about today. In the end it’s a movie about honesty and dishonesty. It is not about understanding, but an effort to understand. Or as Kathryn Stockett has posted on her web site:
But what I am sure about is this: I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially the 1960’s. I don’t think it is something any white woman, on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck, could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.