Monday, 3 October 2011

The Help (movie)

One minute everyone is talking about the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett . . . and the next minute it's a movie starring the suddenly ubiquitous Emma Stone. And, even if Margaret and David found the film lacks sufficient gravitas as warranted by the subject, it's still a film well worth seeing.

Set amid the 1960s civil rights movement in the USA, the story focuses on Skeeter, a young white woman from the 'in crowd', who decides to interview and write down the personal stories and day-to-day experiences of as many African American maids as she can convince to talk with her. Initially it's just two, Abileen and Minny, but ultimately she wins the trust of dozens, and the result is a book that takes society by storm.

It's hard to believe that as short a time ago as 1963, African Americans were treated with such discrimination -- and, as one of my friends pointed out after our viewing, the subject matter of The Help is relatively benign compared with much of what else went on. (The murders of black activist Medgar Evans and JFK are mentioned.) But the plight of the domestic servants serves to illustrate -- without all the violence -- just how inhumane some white people could be. The maids really were at the mercy of their employers, who could sack them with little provocation -- and ensure they would be unable to work again.

In addition to the obvious major theme of racial equality and civil rights, the story also explores the challenge of standing up for what you believe in, as Skeeter forges ahead with her project and is forced to realise how shallow and cruel (and weak) her erstwhile friends have become. Moreover, in this particular case, voicing equality sentiments was actually illegal, and could have resulted in severe repercussions for the maids who participated (if proven).

One criticism of the film has been that it's overly sentimental, filled with caricatures, rather than characters. I agree with this to an extent, although this may be derivative of the novel (I don't know). Certainly Skeeter, with her complete lack of prejudice and courage of her convictions, must have seemed too good to be be true to these women whose voices she made heard. And her 'friends' were also rather polarised in their nasty/vindictive/weak behaviour. Yet the character of the maid Abilileen had good depth and texture, and I rather enjoyed Allison Janney's role -- alternately comic and poignant -- as Skeeter's sick mother, desperate to find a husband for her daughter.

To sum up, I'm definitely glad to have seen it, because I think these are important issues and it never hurts to reflect on the dark shards of our past. But it doesn't leave me with a desire to read the book. It's not the style of novel I'm generally partial to, so I'm happy to have it presented to me as a film.

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