Movie Chat: The Help

I went to an afternoon showing of The Help with my daughter (who was clueless) and my friend Susie (who has her own stories to tell).  The movie would be a disappointment to fans of the book, but it’s visually very lovely.  It telescoped many events, dropped some complicated incidents, and softened (for me) the emotional impact of the human tragedy.  It has some fantastic performances from lesser-known actors, both black and white, and a breakthrough serious role for Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan.

My complaints?  Skeeter is too beautiful for her role as a young woman whose mother despairs of her ever getting married and her curls are managed by modern mousse.  The queen bee, Hilly Holbrook, as played by Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) is too beautiful and svelte, compared to the description in the novel.  Constantine, Skeeter’s nursemaid is too old, but wonderfully acted by Cicely Tyson.  The “white trash” bride Celia Foote is not vulgar enough in the fancy ballroom scene.  And Elaine Stein, the Jewish New York editor, is too smooth-faced and attractive (I imagined her being more masculine and angular).

Furthermore, Constantine’s daughter, Lulabelle, is too dark, in a confusing switch from the novel, in which she was considered “too high yellow,” (meaning, looking white) to stay in the South, so Constantine sent her up North in Chicago to be raised in an orphanage.  She grew up empowered by the Black Panther movement, returns to visit her mother, and brazenly walks into a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Phelan plantation as if she’s a member or guest.  Her mother is abruptly fired after 29 years of employment and having raised Skeeter.

The messiness of politics and political campaigns was dropped.

But, most crucial was the decision to end the movie before the novel does.

Spoiler alert: The viewer does not know that Skeeter’s mother does die of cancer, so she’s released to move to New York to take the job at Harper & Row offered by Elaine Stein.  And she arranges for Aibileen Clark to take over her column on housekeeping tips, a racial breakthrough in publishing.  The novel is more hopeful, but the film leaves the viewer in suspense about their future.

Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.