Dreamworks Studios brings the bestselling book The Help to the screen on August 12. What surprised this movie reporter was the film’s positive incorporation of Jesus’ teaching to love those who wrong you. In an era when teachings from Scripture are often ridiculed in movies, The Help makes it clear that nothing changes without obedience to God and faith in His love.
Set in Mississippi during the 1960s, the comedy/drama stars Emma Stone as Skeeter, a southern society girl who returns from college determined to become a journalist. Skeeter (her childhood nickname as she had, like mosquitoes, long legs) finds a subject to investigate when she hears that her friends are trying to pass a law that their maids must use separate bathrooms. She decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of prominent southern families, not realizing what affect it will have on her friendships or the future of civil rights.
The author of the book, the writer of the screenplay, and the producers, all of whom are white, comically and poignantly sear through a passed-down social bigotry, reminding viewers of how far the civil rights movement has come. The story also suggests that society has a ways to go before prejudice toward any group is an ailment of the past.
In the film, a black pastor encourages his congregation to love others, even your enemies, even those who do you injustice. This is the catalyst for the main maid, Aibileen, wonderfully brought to screen life by Academy Award nominee Viola Davis (Doubt), who eventually speaks out despite the threatening consequences. Though we see the hypocrisy of those who use church more as a sorority, The Help brings home the need for faith and the application of Christ’s teachings to overcome those who find value in themselves by belittling others.
At a recent press junket, I found one question resonated with several of those involved in the production. How does faith play into this film?
Viola Davis (Aibileen): “A lot of black people in that day got strength from their Christianity. Because you know the whole power of Christianity is that God loves you no matter what! It’s an undeserved love, but it’s constant and it’s there. The whole definition of faith is you don’t see it, but it’s there. That faith served Aibileen well, because there’s no evidence in her life that she is deserving of anything.”
Kathryn Stockett (author of the novel): “Being a Southerner, having grown up in a Christian family, it was so important for me to understand how each character felt and stood with God. Aibileen, a gentler, more traditional character, had a close communication with God. She wrote down her prayers rather than speaking them because she felt like she could go back and erase, edit them in order to get it right. She wanted to make sure she was asking for exactly the right things. Minny had a much different view of God. When Minny is talking to God, she’s kinda screaming at Him. But still that signals how close her relationship is. And I felt Skeeter was someone who hadn’t yet found her God. She’s very young and concentrating on career.”
Chris Columbus (Producer): “I’ve always found that historically people growing up in a working class, blue-collar environment seem to support the church, because not only does it give them a sense of community, but also a sense of hope. These are people who may not like their jobs, or feel fulfilled by their work. So, their sense of spirituality and community comes on Sunday in church. That’s an important part of their lives and we couldn’t ignore that fact. It had to be in the movie.”
Octavia Spencer (Minny): “Cicero said it best: ‘a man of courage is also full of faith.’ I think faith is definitely what got people through. You had to believe in something other than yourself.”
Mary J. Blige (who performs the ending song, The Living Proof): How do you deal with the memory of what others had to overcome? “I process it the way Aibileen did in the film. When she was walking down the road at the end, she says in narration, ‘To forgive your enemies is hard to do, but it starts by being honest.’ That’s the only way to be free. To forgive abuses, to forgive racism. The only way to be free or successful in life is to forgive.”
Asked if she personally subscribed to this philosophy, Ms. Bilge added: “Without God there is no forgiveness, no softening of the heart. Prayer has got me as far as I’ve come, it’s got me through.”
Brunson Green (Producer): What is it that you want the audience to get from this film? “I wanted people to appreciate the journey these women went through. That world that seems claustrophobic, that seems like it will never change. It seems somewhat hopeless. And yet know that there is a way to make a change, and that you can believe in yourself. When you understand who you are and the people who are against you, when you come to grips with your life, you can move on. I hope people sense that they can do something, that they can change their life.”
Rated PG-13, Phil Boatwright calls The Help “funny, poignant and inspiring; one of the best films of the year.”