You know how Hollywood’s idea of an endearing female lead is a pretty, thin, amazing girl whose only faults are watching her weight and being adorably clumsy? Somebody decided to shake things up a little for the modern ladyfolk and gave us that wonderful category: The Non Rom-Com Chick Flick. And it’s a thriving industry too: Mona Lisa Smile, The Blind Side, Julie and Julia, Amelia, Eat Pray Love, Whip It and most recently, Bridesmaids. Some were a breath of fresh air, others reek of the same, tired garbage. It’s always a choice between the jerk boyfriend/society ladies’ approval and a super-duper career/kind and selfless act, isn’t it? Oh woe is me, how is one supposed to choose?
The latest offender is The Help. Set in 1960s’ Mississippi, young unmarried Skeeter Phelan is shocked by her friends’ campaign to build separate bathrooms outside the house for the African-American servants. Instead of quietly embroidering her trousseau and finding herself a man, she decides to write a book (anonymously), compiling the experiences of the maids– the good, the bad and the horrible. But if anybody finds out, she stands to lose her social status and the maids, their livelihoods.
To give credit where it is due, the book this movie is based on is an engaging read. There is no single protagonist, and there is no White Heroine benevolently scattering largess to the downtrodden ethnic minority. The tone of the book treads a line between funny and horrifying, because the stakes are that high. Lynching is a reality, and common too. One word from a white employer and a maid and her entire family’s livelihood is ruined. People get their tongues cut off. The racism isn’t just the obvious acts like segregation, but insidious things like not letting your fingers touch the maid’s when she hands you coffee, having a separate plate and cup for her to use– the kind that nobody really notices or thinks is a problem.
Racism in ’60s Mississippi is not a light-hearted subject, and certainly should not focus on a pretty white woman who was like, totally a feminist and civil rights activist and showed all those prissy white folk how them liberals roll. Emma Stone getting the biggest cut of the screen time and being the protagonist completely destroyed the foundation of the story. What does she have at stake? No boy in Jackson would marry her and the society ladies would throw her out of the bridge club if they found out she was associating with maids. Boo-fricking-hoo.
The real story is about the brave maids who put their families and themselves on the chopping block to tell their stories. Unfortunately, this film simply did not convey that sense of danger and the tense atmosphere they lived in. Apart from one throwaway mention about a lynching, the characters seem more concerned with boyfriends and frenemies. Even though the maids are the ones risking everything, only two of them get any semblance of a backstory. The climax of the film was centred around the cardboard cutout villain queen bee’s hissy fit.
What irritated me the most was that the film never had the courage to follow through on premise of the book. It always remained superficial, and as I mentioned before, comic in tone. The most egregious lapse to me was the story arc related to Skeeter’s maid’s fate, where the plot was changed from the book and as a result, became pointless (sorry, can’t reveal it without giving away spoilers). A number of superfluous characters were retained in the movie to maintain similarity to the book, but the film simply failed to capture the soul of the book. Once the maid’s interviews are published, there’s a bit of unpleasantness for about five minutes and everybody goes on with their lives. In the book, the publication of the interviews is only the start of weeks and months of fear and the bitter reaping of consequences.
But fortunately, some Hollywood executive realized that lynching and torture are heavy subjects, simply not suited for us fragile womenfolk. Us gals would obviously prefer a frothy film for Girls Night Out, to work up a thirst for cosmos after.
If you have not read the book, you wont hate the movie, because you wont see the wasted potential. There is no doubt that all the actors performed admirably, and the film definitely had its moments but ultimately, it failed for me because of its spineless script. On the plus side, at least now we know what the lovechild of American History X and Mean Girls looks like.