Most people may consider One Day to have been the book adaptation movie of the year, but box office takings tell a different story. One Day has made $40million; The Help has made $193million. Admittedly, The Help was more successful in the U.S. than in the U.K. due to a more modest advertising campaign, but it has performed impressively in spite of this.
The Help takes us back to the well-worn scene of the 1960s American deep south, the setting of many a classic film over the past few decades – so it has to take a fresh enough topic to make this kind of film work. The Help focuses on the contradictory institution of black servants effectively running white households, raising the children that live in them, and yet being so drastically discriminated against that they cannot even use the family’s indoor toilet. Divisions of race, as well as class and gender, run through the movie as reminders of America’s dark modern history. Indeed, for those who have been enjoying the Upstairs, Downstairs element of Downton Abbey, there is something of an American translation to be found in The Help.
Whilst it has become somewhat standard for any highly successful novel to be subject to a film adaptation these days, the visual potentials of The Help seem to make its shift to the big screen particularly more inevitable – largely on account of its setting in the 1960s, a highly popular reference point in current fashion and art. One need only look at the recent success of TV shows like Mad Men, the mini-series on The Kennedys, or even the Jackie O dresses which appeared in lines this summer to see the period has popular appeal. The Help is full of rich, colourful scenes in which every element of set, background, costume, prop and make up have been meticulously designed to perfectly capture the aesthetics of contemporary American culture; apparent even from the basic film poster. In particular, Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography is to be commended.
The history of African-American prejudice is dominated by the actions of men (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, JFK, Ross Barnett, the KKK), so it is refreshing to see that the centre figure of racial hatred in this film is be a woman: the despicable social pillar Holly Holbrook. She shows that in many ways, the women – like the men – allow themselves to be led from the top, and band together against what they perceive to be an enemy.
The alternative is Skeeter Phelan, a young white university graduate attempting to become a published journalist, who acts as our ticket through the film’s narrative. She decides to write the untold story of the black women who work as maids in Jackson, Mississippi, by gaining their trust and forging a certain empathy with them. She allows the women she meets to paint vignettes of their history which in turn allows the film to present the socio-historical conditions on that all-important personal level. Their camaraderie goes deeper than just the bridging of two conflicted races; they are also united as women in a society which still very much belongs to the men. To see the cracks begin to form, and the understandings beginning to transpire between these women, kept apart by the laws of men which are entrenched upon their minds, is an untold story in itself. Prepare to have your heart warmed.
The Help is currently in cinemas nationwide. The original novel by Kathryn Stockett is available everywhere.