"The Help," a feel-good tearjerker about the plight of black maids in 1960s Mississippi, is the number one movie in America.
Based on a bestselling novel, "The Help" was an unexpected smash, and has already grossed over $100 million at the box office. For the most part, critics were pleased with it as well: "Appalling, entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing," wrote Tom Long of the Detroit News. "The sort we rarely get these days." Betsey Sharkey of the L.A. Times chimed in, "A delicious peppery stew of home-cooked, 1960s Southern-style racism that serves up a soulful dish of what ails us and what heals us."
"The Help" has also sparked fierce debate about its portrayals of race and history. Many writers have remarked upon "The Help"'s plot line -- in which a feisty young white woman saves and is in turn saved by black women -- as well as its sanitized view of 1960s Mississippi.
"Instead of plunging us into a racist past [...] "The Help" takes us on a pop-cultural tour that savors the picturesque, and strengthens stereotypes it purports to shatter," wrote Joe Morgenstern at The Wall Street Journal.
But haven't we seen this before? "The Help" is not the first movie to tell the story of southern racism in the Civil Rights era through the lens of an unlikely friendship between a white woman and her black maid. The 1990 film "The Long Walk Home" starring Sissy Spacek (who also appears in "The Help") and Whoopi Goldberg wasn't just first -- it's better.
"The Long Walk Home" succeeds precisely where "The Help" fails. Directed by Richard Pearce, the film is set in 1955 Alabama. Spacek plays Miriam Thompson, an upper class housewife who is drawn into the civil rights struggle when her maid, Odessa Cotter (Goldberg) is affected by the bus boycott and must walk to work. Miriam begins to drive Odessa to work -- against her husband's protests -- and eventually, becomes far more involved in the movement than she could have imagined.
"The Long Walk Home" benefits from the film's decision to keep Miriam and Odessa's relationship as the primary focus for the story. Viewers are taken into the genteel dinner party lifestyle of the Thompsons, but they're also invited to experience the Cotter household across town, where Odessa's husband (Ving Rhames) and children struggle through a far less comfortable existence.
Rather than present us with a heroine whose goodness is unquestionable, "The Long Walk Home" gives us Miriam, a sheltered Southern woman who drives Odessa from her home not because she empathizes with her, but because Odessa's household work suffers as a result of having to walk. When the two begin to fraternize as other than as employer and employee, the process is uncomfortable, almost hilariously awkward.
While "The Long Walk Home" received some of the same criticism as "The Help" -- namely that it overstates the positive impact of white Americans on the African-American cause, and beatifies the black family by making them very peaceful churchgoers -- the film was generally lauded for its nuance and characterization, as delivered by Spacek and Goldberg.
"The Help," on the other hand, knows nothing of nuance. With about four more plot lines than can reasonably be handled in a two-and-a-half hour long film, skimpy character development, and writing that verges on Hallmark-branded schmaltz, it can feel curiously devoid of subtlety. Though the film is broadly entertaining, the moments of fear, of disgust, of despair, and of danger are often too manufactured to elicit an emotional response that extends past the screen.
The major difference, however, between "The Long Walk Home" and "The Help" is in their handling of history -- not necessarily the precise events, or settings, or costumes, but in its understanding of the personal, emotional struggle people must face in order to enact change. Spacek's Miriam has more in common with Hilly ("The Help"'s villainous racist housewife) than with Skeeter: She's no enlightened advocate out to rabble rouse just because she feels it's right. Awareness is granted gradually, and painfully. It's not a light switch that suddenly turns on, but a dim fire that has to be kindled carefully against the wind.
Watch "The Help" trailer:
Watch "The Long Walk Home" trailer: