The problem with a race feminist story is that you’re dealing with two complex issues (feminism and race) that either alone can easily take up the entire 2 hours of a movie. The problem with a white person attempting to tell a story about race is that you’re not likely to see a complete or altogether accurate picture of an African-American perspective. The problem with adapting a 544-page book that contains numerous subplots and characters into a movie is that the film risks feeling episodic and won’t (or can’t) do justice to the many facets of the book. The film adaptation of THE HELP, which is based on Kathryn Stockett’s national bestselling novel, suffers from all of these problems and much like the HARRY POTTER films, true enjoyment of the film can only come if you read the book first. However, I also don’t regard THE HELP as a failure. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed the film very much and it served as a nice respite from all the loud, brainless, action movies of the summer.

THE HELP is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s. The story is essentially about Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has just graduated from college and she aspires to be a writer. She lands a job at the local newspaper writing a Miss Manners-type column, but what she really wants to do is write a book about the racial inequalities suffered by African-American maids who work for Southern white households. Although Skeeter was raised in a household that hired a maid and she grew up within Jackson’s upper-class, white society, she doesn’t share the same views that her other lady friends do. For her book project, Skeeter contacts Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged African-American maid who has spent her life raising white children while she lost her own in an accident. Skeeter convinces Aibileen to set aside her reservations about working with Skeeter and to recount her experiences being a maid. Aibileen soon recruits other maids to tell their stories, including her best friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer).

The main story of THE HELP revolves around Skeeter and her collaboration with Aibileen and Minny to write her book. However, the film contains many subplots revolving around Aibileen, Minny, and other maids as well as some of the other Southern white society women. Every character we meet seems to have their own story and the film attempts to give adequate coverage to all of them. The rule of thumb for screenplays is that you have one main story that serves as the film’s narrative spine. Given that a film’s running time typically clocks in around 2 hours, you don’t have much time to establish and develop your main story. A successful screenplay will also usually have no more than a few subplots that support the main story, develop the film’s themes, and generally add more dimension to the plot and characters. The book version of THE HELP clearly didn’t concern itself with the possibility of one day becoming a movie because its chock full of characters, each of whom has their own story to tell. In addition to Skeeter’s, Aibileen, and Minny’s stories, you also have Celia Foote’s (Jessica Chastain) story, Elizabeth Leefolt’s (Ahna O’Reilly), and Skeeter’s mother’s story (Allison Janney) among other smaller subplots. The film’s running time is over 2 hours and that’s undoubtedly because it tries very hard to allow sufficient screen time to tell all the stories that need to be told. With very careful listening (and not taking any bathroom breaks), I was able to mostly keep up with the film’s breakneck pace in going through the different plotlines. At times I felt like I was getting a crash course preview of what the book was about rather than getting a film that stands on its own and that doesn’t make you feel like you need to read the book.

Like I said before, one of the film’s biggest problems is its attempt to handle both the racism and feminism themes. This isn’t a problem in a book because the author can write for as long as he/she needs to in order to get their point across. For a film, however, such comprehensive themes can prove an unwieldy task for any seasoned director or screenwriter. What ends up happening, as it does in THE HELP, is that neither theme receives the exploration that it deserves and we’re left with a watered down, cursory examination of what the book more fully covers (and which is partly why the film feels like a Cliff Notes version of the novel). What’s more, by shortchanging these themes, the film comes off as either not caring about the social issues the story presents or not properly understanding them. I think this is what partly underlies the controversy in the African-American community about how the book deals with the racial element of the story (that and the fact that a white woman wrote the book). For example, I wish we saw more of the racial tension between the maids and their white employers, especially that of Aibileen and her employer, which I don’t think was given enough attention. I would have also liked to have seen more of the story between Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her maid before the maid was sent to jail for stealing. As for the feminist theme, I think much of how the community viewed Skeeter’s single status and her choice to be a professional working woman was implied. That and her relationship with her mother and especially her old maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson) received so little attention that by the time we get to Constantine’s resolution, there wasn’t sufficient buildup to generate the intended emotional response from the audience.

THE HELP is already receiving Oscar buzz and if there is anything in this film that deserves recognition during awards season, it is the performances given by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (there’s a great scene involving Spencer where she explains the benefits of Crisco). Both deliver beautiful and moving performances, especially Davis. The film is also full of engaging performances from Emma Stone, who continues to impress me this summer after her star turn in CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, and Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, and Cicely Tyson. Bryce Dallas Howard’s ultra-bitch turn will forever be burned in the minds of many moviegoers. I was impressed with Jessica Chastain’s sorta-dumb blond, naïve, but heart of gold character. She reminded me a bit of Laura Dern and Melanie Griffith.

Finally, THE HELP is a gorgeous looking film. It beautifully evokes the South during the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in nostalgic, warm colors and magic hour lighting. The film managed to transport me to that time period and it never once gave itself away by slipping into a modern convention and taking me out of the time period. Hopefully, the wonderful work done by DP Stephen Goldblatt will also be recognized during awards season.

THE HELP is certainly going to appeal to fans of the book and for those who are into the types of books Oprah Winfrey likes to recommend to her female audience. I don’t mean to downplay the strengths of the story, but THE HELP is aimed to a particularly older, female audience and they’re more likely to enjoy this film than men are. If you’re looking for an intellectual analysis of the racism experienced by African-American maids who worked for rich, white, Southern households, this isn’t that movie. This movie feels more like the product of some privileged, white, country club woman who momentarily felt strongly about the plight of African-Americans and began to remember her grand ol’ black nanny who raised her so she decided to write a story about it.

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