If not for an invitation from Michelle Obama (you know, her people emailed my people) I might have missed seeing The Help. But a request for my presence in the White House screening room was too enticing–not to mention singular– to turn down.
And so Wednesday I found myself seated next to Marian Wright Edelman of The Children’s Defense Fund, amidst a group of other afternoon film buffs and stars Emma Stone and Octavia Spencer, acting as if we had nothing else in the world to do at 3:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday.
It’s a 40+ seat theater– red fabric walls and red plush chairs, popcorn and soda pop, and all. The First Lady, completely gracious and welcoming, introduced the film and its two stars before heading back into meetings. She explained that she and the girls and her mother watched the film last week–and she believes it to be instructive in the progress made in racial matters. Certainly the fact that we were at that moment staring at the first-Black -First-Lady in her private screening room at The White House was a counterpoint to the segregated, pre-Civil Rights setting of The Help.
I may be among the one or two people on the planet, given the book’s success on bestseller lists since it arrived in 2009, who has not read The Help. Something about 512 pages of so-called black dialect written by a non-black person about domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi always stopped me cold.
This is not to disparage Kathryn Stockett’s intentions -- to highlight the good deeds of the maids, the sinister streak of the women who used them, and the love between white children and their black caretakers. And no one can argue that readers everywhere love this story, and I always wonder if it is nostalgia for a time when people knew their place.
I know something of that story: the grandmother who was most influential in raising me spent a long successful career as a cook, working for one of the richest families in Birmingham, Alabama. She was one of the last majordomo’s of that era, during a time when the wealthy did not regularly see their children. The children in this household would ask my grandmother, on occasion, “Edna, are we seeing the white folks tonight?” They thought they were Black, of course.
In the film version of The Help we have the brilliant, really one of our finest actors, Viola Davis (Oscar nom for Doubt, Tony’s for Fences and King Hedley II ) and versatile Octavia Spencer, who has a chance to snare a Best Supporting nomination for this film. Their performances carry this project (and the dialogue/dialect), but I kept wishing for better roles for them. Black actresses this talented deserve better parts. Is anyone in Hollywood going to step up?
We get to see Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Mary Steenburgen and Cecily Tyson, the good ole Southern gals…and new actresses Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard. Without question, it is a woman’s film–the men hardly issue a peep throughout.
But at 2 hours, 15 minutes, it’s overlong and moves a little bit like molasses, if you know what I mean. It opens “everywhere” on Aug 12th.
FYI - the White House popcorn is pretty good. Michelle, throwing caution to the wind, said we could eat anything we wanted, even drink our soda pop–after all, we were at the movies!
Carol Jenkins is a New York City based writer and producer. An Emmy-winning former television journalist, she was founding president of The Women's Media Center.
Reprinted with permission.