The Help

Art & Culture

If you’ve read the book, and an awful lot of people have, then you’ll probably want to see the film, and you’re unlikely to be disappointed. It’s a very faithful adaptation.

The story behind the writing of the book is almost as compelling as the book itself. Kathryn Stockett is a woman who grew up in Jackson Mississippi in the 70s, cared for by a black maid. She took five years to write the book, and was rejected by 50 agents before she found one to represent her. I bet they’re all pissed off now, because the novel has sold millions of copies, and has spawned a No1 movie.

The reason (I guess) that it was rejected is that in the literary world, it was considered crass for a white woman to write as if she was a black woman – the novel has three narrators, two black, one white. But that is what the book is about, including Stockett’s choice of vernacular vocabulary to represent the black characters. Aibileen has lost an adult son, and nurses her grief under a mask of obedience. Minny is more outspoken and therefore regularly fired, though fortunately she cooks so well, that she gets hired elsewhere. The third partner is Skeeter, a young woman who has gone away to college, and realises the bigotry of her home town when she returns.

The story is set at the turn of the 60s, with JFK coming to power in 1961, and the murder of Medgar Evers (a Civil Righst activist) in 1963. Skeeter is ambitious to be an author, and concocts the idea of writing a book which expresses how black maids feel about their lives, and the way their white employers treat them. For this she requires the active assistance of the maids in question, whose safety and livelihoods are at stake. Another crucial character is Skeeter’s friend Hilly, who is determined that all homes should have an outside toilet for the black help to use (and thus not pollute the white toilets).

As I say, the film is pretty much a mirror reflection of the book, with a couple of minor alterations. The key to the success of the movie is the casting, with Emma Stone as a very likeable Skeeter, Viola Davis as Aibileen, Octavia Spencer as Minny, Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, and (unrecognisable) Jessica Chastain (from Tree Of Life) as Celia, the blonde bombshell/trailer trash who Minny works for. Men don’t get much of a look in, which makes a welcome change, and this is certainly a whole lot better than Steel Magnolias, which occupied similar territory. The film is directed by Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett’s, and she does a professional job which allows the story to be told simply and directly, which is not as easy as it sounds.

It’s unlikely that the film will replicate its US success in the UK, but it has a lot to offer, especially for fans of the book.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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