Race and Films About Women: The Importance of The Help

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Bridesmaids and how it could change the landscape for female-oriented programming in the theaters. I also mentioned how it indicates this country’s thirst for well-made studio fare by and about women. This past week The Help, a film about and targeted toward women, hit screens. The film debuted to both critical acclaim and uproar about its handling of race and racism. While a healthy discussion of race can never be thought of as a negative thing, those criticizing The Help are overlooking some of the importance of the film’s success.

Kathryn Stockett’s eponymous novel focuses mainly on three characters: Skeeter, a white woman fresh out of college and an aspiring writer; Aibileen, an older, African-American maid who has just lost her son; and Minnie, a younger African-American woman has to find a new maid position while under threat of being badmouthed around town by her powerful former employer. That employer, the novel’s villain, Hilly, has decided to draft a bill that would require all African-American maids to have a separate bathroom. This bill, as well as Skeeter’s desire to prove herself to a New York publisher, sparks Skeeter’s desire to write an expose about what life is like for the maids of Jackson, Mississippi.

There was a great deal of controversy over the depiction of race relations in 1960s Mississippi when the novel came out (and Stockett was only recently cleared of basing one character on a real-life maid without giving credit to that woman), so the controversy surrounding the film adaptation of the novel isn’t surprising. The amount of press that the movie has gotten since opening August 10, however, is impressive.

Numerous reviews proclaimed The Help a triumph, and CinemaScore’s extremely rare grade of an A+ (and $5.5 million made on opening night alone) point to some of the positive reactions to the film. However, along with the praise, a debate has ensued over the movie’s implications about race.

Many critics find themselves applauding the film’s acting and script while maintaining that the subject matter does not treat race relations with the appropriate amount of gravity. Accusations include the story focusing on, yet again, a white person taking it upon him or herself to alleviate the pain of black people, and in the meantime, coming to a better understanding of racism in their own social circles. Others criticize the story being one of black suffering, written by a white woman who never actually lived what she’s writing. And if you heard the premise of The Help it might be easy to think that’s the case.

However, I beg of you, read the book and/or see the movie before passing judgment. Don’t go in with preconceived notions. Just go in open to the film’s message. It’s also important to recognize that this is a film built on the stories of women, acted by women. It should not be overlooked that The Help is female-driven film and its success or failure, for better or worse, will be another indicator to Hollywood the interest in all female-driven films.

Stockett did herself a solid by hiring her childhood friend Tate Taylor to direct the film. Although his directing background included only 2008’s Pretty Ugly People, which was less than, ahem, well-received or popular, with The Help there have been comparisons to Robert Altman, a director who can turn basic dramas into art. The Help also boasts some of the year’s best acting, with no less than seven stellar female performances by Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, and Allison Janney. These actresses represent a mix of ages and races, coming together on the big screen to produce an entertaining and thoughtful film.

It’s difficult to say whether the controversy around The Help is warranted. To dismiss Stockett’s story as racist belittles what is ultimately a vivid, deep, and charming tale. Did she capture all the nuances of a black maid’s life in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi? I can’t know the answer to that. Though Stockett calls her story “fiction, by and large” in her afterword (which addresses why she wrote the novel) Stockett notes in that same afterword that she was writing based on her own childhood growing up in the South and pulled from her memory of that time period for her story in order to get as close to the truth as possible. In doing so, I argue she developed one of the most compelling stories in the last ten years.

I also must reiterate what some critics have pointed out (especially Owen Gleiberman in his thorough analysis at Entertainment Weekly) when they emphasized that the story is not about Emma Stone’s character, Skeeter, who is the young, white woman writing the story about the maids. Skeeter is the anchor that holds all the smaller pieces together, but The Help is much bigger than her character. In my opinion, Skeeter’s journey is the least interesting. We learn she’s always been intellectually and socially advanced, so the position of the black maids in Jackson strikes her as wrong immediately. This is not a learning journey for her as much as it is for the maids who assist in getting the book completed, Aibileen and Minnie.

The film is about the small moments — the lifelong resentment that builds up in Viola Davis’ Aibileen, the abuse that Octavia Spencer’s Minnie suffers at both the hands of her husband and her white female employers, the loneliness Jessica Chastain’s Celia feels being in a new place that doesn’t accept her, the love of power that Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly feels at being able to control every situation and person — and how these characters intertwine and force people to confront barriers based on race, gender, class, or religion.

For me, the fact that someone in Hollywood had the guts to make this movie demonstrates that the focus isn’t on making white people feel better about race relations in this country — I’d say most people won’t and shouldn’t take this from the film. Instead, this movie is about women gaining a more powerful voice in the film world.

Cat Scott is an entertainment/lifestyle blogger and first-year law student at Northeastern University. She works out of her home in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she loves living with her two perfect cats and good, but not as perfect, boyfriend. She loves reading, going to the theater, catching up on missed television, and has recently taken up running. She blogs at Cinnajoon, contributes weekly to film blog The Playlist, and tweets from @CatMarieScott.

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