Ozzily Yours

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In Which I (Irritatingly, I'm Sure) Insist on Comparing a Film to Its Source Material

I am white. Hella white. Polar bear in a snow storm white. I also undeniably come from a place of privilege. That all adds up to a whole lot of white guilt. (You know the type - I recently second-guessed my own AWESOME actor ID because the actor in question was black and I suddenly feared that I was assuming they all looked the same.)

With all that in mind, I was hesitant to read The Help back when everyone was talking about it. I mean, here I am, a privileged white woman, I wouldn't begin to say that I could approximate the African-American point of view even now, let alone in the '60s. So why did I want to read a book that tried to do just that, written by a privileged white woman, about a privileged white woman writing a book about the African-American point of view??? (Man, that's a convoluted sentence.)

But eventually, I succumbed to curiosity, and I found The Help extremely compelling. Sure, I've still got issues with the idea that this is what it took to get this story told... but I'm glad the story got told.

I was intrigued, but not surprised, when I heard about the film version. And I had definite issues with the casting (sure, I adore Allison Janney as much as anyone, and yes, Emma Stone is adorable - but the idea of Ms. Stone portraying the tall, awkward, graceless Skeeter with Ms. Janney as her former-beauty-queen-southern-belle mother? Erm, no). So I decided I had to check it out.

And I came away with renewed appreciation for Kathryn Stockett's book. Because what I vividly remember from it that the film simply did not portray was the absolute mistrust that the maids had for white people (which many of their white employers were completely unaware of), and the abject fear they felt - the understanding that, given they right (or wrong) circumstances, they could literally die for a single misstep. Which made the idea of their willingness to participate in a tell-all regarding the treatment of house staff in Jackson, MS truly an act of courage.

Tate Taylor's film was quirky, precious, comical, and occasionally included footage of both whites and blacks reacting to an offscreen act of violence perpetuated upon a national figure. There was none of the urgency that I imagine truly ignited the civil rights movement, none of the fear. It is true that Viola Davis was (as always) extraordinary, and many other performances were equally memorable (though, still... Emma Stone and Allison Janney? no). But I was disappointed by what was stripped away, and that what remained was so very very lightweight.

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