When Callie Khouri sold the rights to her first screenplay, Thelma & Louise, her intent was to direct the film. Her lack of experience, and most likely a good bit of sexism, led the studios to enlist Ridley Scott, a revenue producing sure thing. It was a disappointing moment for women in Hollywood but the result was a contemporary masterpiece that created two of the most revered feminist icons in film, as well as a site for witnessing general girlie badass-ness. Who knows what kind of film it would have been if there had been a different director? I was left pondering this same question after viewing The Help, a film whose main flaw is the inexperience of its director.
Before being published, Kathryn Stockett’s novel was rejected from nearly 60 publishers – followed by harsh and conflicting feedback from literary critics – so it is no wonder that Stockett called on her best friend Tate Taylor to direct the film. The Help, which has remained on the NY Times Best Sellers list since its debut in 2009, is similar to Thelma & Louise in that it’s a well written and uniquely touching story about everyday women struggling against gender role boundaries and systematic oppression. But where Scott enlivened Khouri’s work as a raw and unapologetic portrait of the reality of resistance, Tate’s film is a mild mannered snapshot of a deeply complicated era. It’s a Civil Rights* story Hollywood style – all dolled up and ready for its close-up.
Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is an anomaly in Jackson, Mississippi*. The only member of her peer group to actually have graduated Ole Miss*, as opposed to dropping out and getting married, she returns home with goal of becoming a writer. Disturbed by the racist agenda of her friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the mysterious departure of the maid by whom she was raised, Skeeter sets out to interview “the help” and expose the true nature of life in Jackson.
The challenge of making a mainstream film about gender, race and class is that Hollywood is itself sexist, racist and elitist. Studio bureaucracy, and perhaps the PG-13 rating, may have kept Tate from delving into the darker parts of Stockett’s story (pun intended) and thus sacrificing some of its more pertinent truths. What never fully comes across in this rendering is how dangerous it is for Abileen (Viola Davis) and Millie (Octavia Spencer) the two maids who have agreed to share their stories with Skeeter. In Stockett’s novel, the violence sneaks up you as it did for many during this painful time in our history. Leaving many of the violent moments out of the film was a good choice for making The Help more accessible and more appealing, especially to a white audience. It also makes the film a little less poignant and a little more trite.
The most compelling part of the film is the relationships between the women as they each struggle for a sense of identity, community, and morality. Its greatest success is the stellar performances by an ensemble of top-notch actresses whose resumes belie the traditional placement of women in film. Viola Davis is especially sublime as Abileen offering more in one look than a page worth of dialogue. But, the most effective transition from page to screen is Jessica Chastain’s embodiment of Celia Foote. From a part of the country too poor to be racist and with a bombshell’s body, Celia’s kindness marks her as a threat to both the maid whose friendship she desires and the white women she longs to be accepted by. Chastain dynamically circumvents stereotype in her portrayal of Celia’s tenderness towards Millie while being defeated by her own ostracism. It is at one time inspiring and heartbreaking.
The Help is an important film because it yields tremendous potential to dialogue about the many ways ordinary people affected revolutionary change in our country. Go see it and then talk about it – preferably with someone who was alive during the 60’s. Then read the book.
*Civil Rights – http://faculty.smu.edu/dsimon/change-civ%20rts.html
*Jackson, MS – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Craig_Anderson