A few days ago, Art Boy and I decided to be the last kids on our block to go see The Help. Now into its second month on local screens, it's had longer legs than any other summer "blockbuster," except for the last Harry Potter movie.
And I can see why. For one thing, it appeals strongly to women, in a movie season traditionally written off for teens and fanboys only. Based on Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel, it depicts a femme-o-centric universe where men scarcely exist at all (onscreen, anyway), and delivers a female-empowering story in which a handful of women stand together to change the status quo in their community—in this case, racial inequality in the deep south, ca. 1960, on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement.
It also has that Mad Men, '60s-era fashion show thing going on, which doesn't hurt. And it provides lots of juicy roles for a variety of actresses—Hollywood's most neglected commodity—of all ages and varieties: starlets Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Jessica Chastain as the young white belles, the divine Viola Davis, sassy Octavia Spencer, and the legendary Cicely Tyson as neighborhood maids, Allison Janney as somebody's mother, even Sissy Spacek as a tippling granny.
It took a long time for this movie to work on me. The fashions seemed too Barbie Doll-perfect, the bitchy Junior League girls too over-the-top brittle, the dialogue too forced and hokey, the emotional situations too scripted and obvious. But I liked the pert Stone as tomboyish protagonist "Skeeter," whose friendship with the black women sets the plot in motion, (although I didn't buy for a second that she couldn't get a date because her hair was too kinky). And I loved Chastain as the sweet, "trampy" outcast. (This year's It Girl, the versatile Chastain changes her persona with each different onscreen hair color: ethereal redheaded mother in The Tree of Life, serious brunette undercover op in The Debt, and her blonde, Monroe-ish waif, here.) And as usual, Davis brought grace and emotional resonance to the proceedings.
(Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, and Viola Davis in The Help.)
Here's what I hated: the way this story reduces the entire complex issue of civil rights—generations of racism, himiliation, murder, and courage in the face of all of the above— down to something that can easily be resoved by putting a few token white snooty bigots in their place. And the comeuppances doled ot to the film's designated villainess, bitchy Hilly (Howard) are both idiotic and pointless. (Seriously, how do two dozen old, broken toilets delivered to her front lawn strike a blow for racial equality?)
But here's the thing: in the ladies' room afterwards, a woman I don't know started telling me a story. When she lived in North Carolina from 1962-66, she told me, all the women had grown up on tobacco plantations and they all smoked—but never in public (as depicted in the film). Otherwise, she thought the setting was pretty accurate. At which point, another woman came out of a stall and chimed in that when she, a Northerner, went to the South for the first time at about this era, she was shocked to find "Whites only" bathrooms.
And that's when I realized how this movie is working on its audiences. Whether or not they've ever actually lived in the South (but especially if they have), women are finding reflections of their own life experiences in this broad canvas of issues filtered through the female perspective—not only race and politics, but motherhood, marriage, social status, work, friendship, injustice and loss. The Help not only speaks to, but validates the experiences of this vast, untapped audience of women. With a steady $137 million racked up at the box office to date, you'd think this would be an audience worth cultivating, if only Hollywood would get a clue.