Film review by: Witney Seibold
There was a moment in Tate Taylor‘s “The Help” wherein the portly black cook/maid Minny (Octavia Jackson), while working for the busty blonde ditz Celia (Jessica Chastain), expounds ever so briefly on the spiritual benefits of fried chicken. “When you’re eating fried chicken,” Minny says, “All seems right with the world.” Celia beams happily, and Minny smiles back in quiet wisdom. The light pours in through the window, and covers the entire kitchen in a halcyon Hollywood light rarely seen outside of Chris Columbus movies. The gorgeous artifice of the scene, paired with the ever so subtly coded racism (twinges of the Magical Negro), had me throwing up my fist in a beautiful display of ironic triumph. This scene exemplifies not only the weakest moments of “The Help,” but also clearly marks it as the latest in Hollywood’s ongoing series of films dealing with racism in a toothless spate of liberal guilt films that appeal less to black people, and more to aged white ladies. Think of “The Blind Side,” or “Driving Miss Daisy” if you must. And while “The Help” is more skilled and subtle than those other films, and, indeed, is enjoyable for its performances and actual ability to get us to give a damn about the minority characters as more than ciphers, it is still, by the end, a little bit too clean and sanitary to do justice to its own material.
The film opens in the late 1950s, and follows the misadventures of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), an ambitious Ol’ Miss grad who is more interested in starting a career than she is in her hometown’s usual activity reserved for young women, that of professional homemaker. Stone brings a youthful energy to the role which gives Skeeter a post-college teen quality that is in keeping with her ambition and her forward-thinking self-awareness. That Stone, with her big eyes and button nose, looks young also helps. Skeeter falls back in with her rich, clucking, bridge-playing Jackson housewife friends, led by the quietly wicked queen bee Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is racist beyond reason; Hilly believes that black people’s pee is infected with diseases.
“The Help” nudges a little at the question as to why this generation of women, who were essentially raised by black nannies and maids, grew up to be so horrible to their own black help, but it never asks it outright. The Howard characters, as well as her cadre of insufferable gossips, are not just casually superior, and put their maids in a place of subservience, but are actually hatefully racist, and say openly dark things to their maids and gardeners. This paints Howard and the rest less as exemplifying actual racist attitudes of the times, and more like supervillainesses straight out of a Disney animated feature. They grin and cackle and scheme, and no-so-confidentially share their hatred. Late in the film, when her plans are unraveling, Howard becomes the victim of a legitimate cheap shot, as she appears with an enormous cold sore on her lip. Luckily, she doesn’t fall into a pit of pig dirt.
To balance the cartoonish racism of the villains, we luckily have a pair of soulful black women who are played with such skill that they come across as real characters, and, the scene above notwithstanding, are not Magical Negroes who exist to dispense homespun advice to the white folks. The film’s other central character is Aibileen (an excellent Viola Davis) a long-suffering maid who understands that she is more a parent to her boss’ cute li’l daughter than her mother is. There is also Minny, who has an unfortunate tendency to back-talk, and actually comes across as a tragically angry woman, rather than a goofy stereotype.
I’m sorry, am I harping on the race thing too much? I don’t think so. This is a film about racism after all. Skeeter, you see, wants to write a book about Jackson from the perspective of the help (hence, the title), and it’s a matter sneaking around town, meeting in secret, making sure none of the old Jim Crow laws aren’t broken. While the book is being written, and testimonies are being slowly collected, the world begins to shift, Medgar Evers is shot, JFK is shot, and “Civil Rights” becomes a catch phrase in Jackson. “The Help” very skillfully does not lets its titular book become an important key in the Civil Rights movement, and instead allows itself to become a minor footnote in its own imaginary universe. This is tasteful; it would have been crass if the filmmakers put their imaginary book next to Martin Luther King and expected us to sympathize. “The Help” also allows the natural consequences of publishing such a book to be realized. For one, Skeeter’s boyfriend dumps her.
A film like “The Help,” I’m afraid, at the end of the day, feels less like an important lesson in racism and history, and more like one of those orchestrated awards-bait movies that we often see released at the end of the year. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, though. The film is good looking, well-paced, and, like I said, contained some great performances. Howard’s role is thankless, but she throws herself into it with glee. Stone is energetic and fresh. Chastain, whom I had only seen as a benevolent mother in “The Tree of Life,” plays a padded-up busty floozy with such commitment, I was surprised. There are even some choice supporting roles from actresses like Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen. And, of course, Davis gives the film what true heart it has.