There was a good deal of off-the-page drama surrounding The Help, Kathryn Stockett's best-selling opus about the lives of black maids and the white women for whom they toil: When it comes to art, who gets to illuminate the souls of black folks? Can a white woman truly tell the stories of black women — using old-school Ebonics? Should it matter? And then there is the as-yet-unresolved lawsuit from Stockett's former black baby sitter, who insists that the novel was based on her life — against her wishes. (Awkward.)
In many ways, the movie version of The Help, adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, is better than the 2009 novel. The film does much to humanize unsympathetic characters; a close-up of welling eyes, a frown or a backward glance provide visual cues that Stockett's ham-fisted prose cannot. On the page, Stockett's clumsy attempt at black dialect grates; on the screen, in the mouths of talented actors, it feels natural, unforced. Then again, the supremely gifted Viola Davis (Aibileen) and Octavia Spencer (Minny) can make any screenplay sing. (Witness Spencer's comedic cameo as the animal psychic in the god-awful Dinner With Schmucks.)
The Help is set in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, a time when Jim Crow constricted black lives and compromised white ones. If you were black and female, there weren't many options available. Except to become the help. This often meant being considered "part of the family" for whom you worked long hours, yet being subjected to soul-crushing insults that served as a daily reminder of your place.
The movie opens with a question: Skeeter (Emma Stone), a privileged young white woman with aspirations of becoming a writer, is interviewing Aibileen, scribbling down notes. "What does it feel like," Skeeter says, "to raise a white child when your own child is at home?"
The answer to that question, loaded with pain, is a long time coming. But it's at the crux of the movie, which skillfully evokes the curious and complicated intimacy between African-American domestics and their "families." We see Aibileen kneeling in front of a toilet, coaching the white toddler in her care to "tee-tee." We see her whispering to the girl, "You is kind. You is smart. You is important." The tot embraces her, saying, "You're my real mama."
And then we see Aibileen, working at that same house, sweating as she sits in the unventilated "special" bathroom that her employers insist that she use.
About that bathroom: It's the final indignity that prompts Aibileen to agree to collaborate with Skeeter on a top-secret book detailing what the maids of Jackson really think about their white folks. ("Write it and write it fast," Skeeter's New York editor tells her, "before this civil rights thing blows over.")
The town's Junior League president, Tilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), a bully in a beehive, has decided that white bathrooms should be strictly verboten for black domestics. So she launches her "Home Health Sanitation Initiative" — endorsed by the White Citizens' Council, because, don't you know, blacks carry diseases? — and insists that all her friends build bathrooms for their maids, too. Anyone who has spent any time among belles of a certain class and attitude will recognize — and appreciate — Howard's spot-on depiction of Southern-fried passive-aggressiveness served with a savage smile.
Tilly will get hers, of course — and then some. The thing is, while the servants are trapped by their lives, the white women are also trapped, albeit with a better wardrobe and a whole lot more free time. But a gilded cage is still a cage. Only Skeeter will find a way to escape the strictures of Southern womanhood.
The film gets a lot of things right — the accents, the flavor of small-town Southern life. The performances are uniformly strong, from Allison Janey as Skeeter's domineering mother to Sissy Spacek as Tilly's doddering but not entirely demented mother to Aunjanue Ellis as the ambitious maid who just wants to send her twins to college.
But there are some things that it doesn't get right. While the movie purports to tell the stories of the help, it's still done mostly through the gaze of white people. Black men don't exist, save for brief snippets of a Martin Luther King-esque preacher, a book-reading soda jerk — and newsreel footage of Medgar Evers.
We never see Minny's abusive husband, just her bruises. Nor do we ever find out what happened to Aibileen's husband. The white men in The Help don't get the same treatment — they're there, present, perhaps doddering about in the background and inserting foot into drunken mouth, but at least they're visible. And I can't help wishing that the filmmakers had included the real reason Skeeter's maid, played by Cicely Tyson, is forced to leave town. (Hint: In the book, it has a lot to do with why her daughter turned out so light-skinned.)
Some of the comedic moments, particularly those involving Minny, are discomfiting. (Do we really need to hear her go on and on about how much she loooooves fried chicken?) Often, The Help's solution to handling difficult subject matter is to leaven it with humor, the better to make it palatable to a mainstream audience. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying, but sometimes laughter trivializes the fact that, yes, you should be crying.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.