'Help' Wanted: Weighing In on New Film

Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

When something's free, all reservations about it usually fall by the wayside, which explains why I've yet to try deep-fried Kool-Aid balls. Someone hasn't handed me a free sample — yet. Last week a group of friends and I met up to watch a complimentary advanced screening of The Help, the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel. I'm not trying to compare Stockett's novel to a blob of fried stereotypical fluff, of course, but some critics have.


For that reason, I wasn't all that confident that a brain trust of smart 30-year-old black women would spend $10 on a ticket to see a movie about maids. Thankfully, "Come on, it's free!" was all the introduction we needed, and since "based on the best-seller" discussions are the new book club (see Twilight, True Blood, et al.), everyone had a lot to say about The Help. I gathered the quotables from Jenée, a writer and colleague at The Root; lawyer Dawn; my best friend and sorority sister, Moni, who works for a nonprofit; and my neighbor Gizele, a D.C. government employee.

Me: First off, who actually read the book?

Jenée: I read half of the book and got bored. To be fair, the subject matter and genre were not my thing — fiction about racial strife stresses me out.

Moni: I read the book and loved it. In fact, I don't think I would've enjoyed the movie if I hadn't already read the book.

Gizele: Is there ever an instance where the book isn't better than the movie? Wait, maybe The Color Purple. Anyway, the book is better, obviously. The book is able to cover areas that the movie just doesn't have time explore, like colorism.

Me: Did the "controversy" surrounding the book's portrayal (some might say exploitation) of a black woman's story affect your decision to see the film?

Dawn: I wasn't aware that there was this huge controversy, but I assumed there would be because of the subject matter. But the previews I saw seemed tasteful and not embarrassing, so I still wanted to see the film.


Moni: Too often, we are afraid to discuss the harsh realities of our shared American history. We all know black maids raised white children in the South during slavery and after. White people are part of that story and have a point of view.

Jenée: It made me side-eye the film somewhat, but I was still open to liking it.

Me: All right, so then what did you like most about the film?  

Jenée: Crickets.

Dawn: I loved the part where chubby little Mae Mobley was calling after Aibileen [played by Viola Davis] when she left. That was heart wrenching! You knew that Mae Mobley's own mother, who was embarrassed by her, felt a real sense of jealousy because her daughter loved Aibileen so much.


Moni: I loved that the movie was funny, yet told a human story and gave a perspective of important women who often don't have a voice.

Me: And what had you rolling your eyes into the back of your head?

Jenée: "The "You is smart, you is kind" mantra Aibileen taught Mae Mobley was unbearable. If she was going to say it that many times, she could have said, "You are … "


Gizele: The character Constantine [played by Cicely Tyson] was actually the most disappointing part of the movie. They aged her like a hundred years and simultaneously made her a shuffling mammy. In the book, Constantine seems like a stronger and younger version of Aibileen, not an old, bent-over Cicely Tyson. I mean, I'm not against Cicely Tyson playing the part, as long as they let her stand up straight.

Moni: Cicely Tyson's wig.

Me: I'm hearing a lot of Cicely Tyson concerns, which I had myself. She's too regal to be relegated to the back of the bus on the credits. Do you think the "mammy" role — black women taking care of their hapless white charges — will ever go away?


Jenée: I don't know, but in a theater full of mostly older black women, who seemed to love the film, I was forced to not be so dismissive. Maybe we need to consider that that story line really resonates with a certain generation.

Dawn: The mammy role isn't as outdated as we'd like to believe. In New York, I see black women pushing white babies around in strollers all the time. The idea that all we can be is a mammy is ridiculous, but I don't think it should be forgotten that black women have played mother to all.


Me: Skeeter [played by Emma Stone] was my favorite character. Her story line as a young, educated, single woman trying to navigate society's expectations resonated the most with me in the book and the film.

Dawn: Well, I have boiled eggs for ovaries and a dog I'm too busy to play with, so yeah, I got Skeeter's story, too. But I don't like the fact that there's such a stark contrast. You're either a really smart hard worker without kids who can't dress and everyone thinks you're going to die alone clutching your credentials, or you're a cute, snooty bitch but you got a man and kids. Where's the middle ground? I have issues with society in that respect, not necessarily the movie.


Jenée: I realized the group I went with actually had much more in common with the white women portrayed in the film than we did the black women. That's great news about how far we've come, but it also made me think seriously about what we're doing (if anything) to honor their legacy. I'd hate to think some of our grandmothers survived that just for us to end up like little brown versions of the white women they used to work for. 

Me: I'm not positive I'm taking Frances, my mother, to see it, and I don't think Frenchie, my grandmother, will be super-hyped about seeing the film. So will you be tweeting The Help's praises? Bringing your mom or grandmother? 


Moni: Absolutely. But I'll recommend they read the book first to "get it."

Gizele: I can recommend this movie to my mother. 

Jenée: More crickets.

Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.


Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.