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What, exactly, is new movie ‘The Help’ about?

Gary Clift, arts critic

By A Contributor

There is a movie version of the novel “The Help” that has just been released to theaters. It stars Viola Davis (a stage actress who won a lot of attention with her turn in the movie “Doubt”) and Octavia Spencer (a veteran film actress) as two African-American maids working in Jackson, Mississippi, the year Medgar Evers was murdered.

So perhaps we should do a moviegoers advisory here. This movie is tangentially related to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, that most over-used of all historic periods, the subject of a third of all PBS programming and a major topic in most American lit. classes. Some Manhattan High students read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for class four times before their eighteenth birthdays.

But perhaps we don’t need to worry about the tired and pop nature of the setting too much here. “The Help” suggests that it is about some part of the struggle for acceptance of general human dignity, but viewers aren’t asked to think much about how a book by a financially comfortable, white Ole Miss grad, based on her interviews with maids, is going to advance the greater cause.

The young author is Skeeter (played by Emma Stone). She has literary ambitions. To get a job in a New York publishing house, she looks for something to write that will please an editor at the company (Mary Steenburgen). While wondering over the mystery of the disappearance of the maid who raised her, Skeeter decides her silly society friends deserve exposure through publication of the anonymous testimony of their maids.

The sort of ineffectual Junior League set, led by Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a bunch of silly women whose maids do all their cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. They shut out one young wife, probably because she married Hilly’s old beau. They sign a petition to require White homes to have separate toilet facilities for the use of Black servants. They raise money for African relief but treat their employees poorly.

All of this is made more complicated by (or is “enriched by,” depending on one’s point of view) the inclusion of several sub-plots. Skeeter’s dying mother (Allison Janney) wants her daughter to marry, and the writer carries on a romance with a local drunk. Minnie the maid (Spencer) serves Hilly, who has just fired her, a pie into which some fecal matter has been blended.

Hilly dumps her mother (Sissy Spacek) in a nursing home from which the older woman emerges to get her revenge. Minnie goes to work for outcast Celia, who can’t cook and doesn’t understand society or the conventions of race relations. Skeeter keeps having flashbacks to her days as a charge of the now vanished maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson). And, then, the Evers murder causes a night of tension.

The maids are at first so afraid of retaliation (not very clearly described) that they won’t talk to Skeeter about her book. But a sermon suggesting that when we forgive our enemies we have already won “The Victory” somehow encourages the maid Aibileen (Davis) to recount some of her stories. Others follow her lead.

The book is published and is read around Jackson. Will it cause retaliation? Will Skeeter get the man and the job?

Second time director Tate Taylor keeps things moving here, and uses his actors and settings well. But he has trouble keeping all the complications from confusing his audience about what the movie is really about. In fact, viewers may wonder if the downtrodden are better off at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. Or if Skeeter is better off.

Surely the poor and blacks in the Deep South are, by most standards, better off than they were in the early 60s. And many viewers will believe that women are better off working, like Skeeter, than they are presiding over afternoon bridge parties. One may wonder, though, if the movie version of “The Help” manages to make the publication of Skeeter’s book important in the advancement of civil rights. And if indicating this wasn’t the movie’s aim, why was it set in Jackson at that time?

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