The Help

a film by Tate Taylor

The biggest problem with The Help is not necessarily its civil rights 101 script that lays out the most sugar-coated version of the era's history one could dream of, written seemingly to make clueless white people think they can now finally understand the plight of others, never daring to go any deeper than what they think middle America can handle; nor is it the blatant racist attitude where there must be a helpful light-skinned majority helping and/or leading the oppressed dark-skinned minority on their good ole way; nor is it the emotional manipulation that choreographs every single scene and leads not to any sense of real catharsis, but to obvious, and quite pat conclusions to every plot thread instead.

Yes, these are indeed major problems with the film (as they are in many a liberal-minded look at oppressed peoples of all ilks - think the overtly racist Driving Miss Daisy or the blatantly homophobic Philadelphia, both pretending they are no such thing) but one has come (or at least one should have come) to the conclusion now that this is how race and gender relations are dealt with in mainstream media, so it should come as no surprise at this point. The Help's real problem is its generic, middle-of-the-road approach to storytelling. Now of course this mediocrity (and the film is just so achingly mediocre even amidst some rather good acting which we shall talk about later) ties pretty fast in with the film's lack of any depth in the aforementioned civil rights 101 script. But it goes deeper than that - even when the film itself does not. Each character is more of a caricature of themselves.

We get the sympathetic college girl who knows that what is going on in her 1963 Jackson Mississippi home is wrong and wants to do something about it. We get the sassy black maid who cracks one-liners and goes on and on about how Crisco can do everything from fixing a squeaky hinge to frying up the best damn chicken south of the Mason-Dixon line. We get the spoiled debutant who thinks she can get "different" diseases from the help using her toilet and actually believes that separate but "equal" bathrooms are what the "colored" want. We get the older black woman who stoically goes about her duties, a tragic figure in history. We get the dying mother who finally learns a lesson and realizes that we are not so different after all. Like I said, civil rights 101 and/or filmmaking 101 - either way we end up on the short end of the stick.

But then there are good things about The Help. After all, mediocre doesn't necessarily mean bad, just bland (which in some circles may be even worse). The good of the film is the acting, but even that is only to a point. The film is obvious Oscar bait (which makes one wonder why a November or December release date wasn't attained) and therefore there are plenty of Oscar-esque speeches given to each of the principal characters. Hollywood "It Girl" Emma Stone as new Ole Miss grad Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan, is the so-called lead but the 22 year old actress doesn't really have much to work with - her character is more of a "straight-woman" to the titular heads of the film. And anyway, I prefer Stone in comic roles such as Easy A. Is it just me or is the character of Skeeter (unmaliciously) riding on the backs of these maids in order to boost her budding career? Par for the course I suppose. We also get Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Opie) as the supposed belle of the ball (and that greatest kind of racist - the racist who thinks they are not racist) but even though her character does have more to do (including eating shit, but I am getting ahead of myself) she has never hit more than one note as an actress, and it is no different here.

The strengths of the cast come in (of course) the three juiciest roles. Octavia Spencer plays Minny, the sassiest of all the Jackson, Mississippi maids but probably the most stereotypical as well. Spencer, known mainly for equally sassy TV guest spots and supporting movie roles, takes this stereotypical role, with its inherent scatological baking tips, and manages to make it her own. An Oscar nod, deserved or not, is surely on the way. Jessica Chastain, most recently seen in Terrence Malick's stunning The Tree of Life, goes blonde here (and trades in her ethereal Malick role for a more earthy one) as a dizzy Southern housewife who's good intentions are taken as nothing of the sort by the gossiping fishwives of Jackson. Actually the relationship between Spencer's Minny and Chastain's Celia Foote is the most delightful sub plot the film has to offer, and one might even wish the whole thing were about them.

The best thing in the movie though is probably Viola Davis. Davis plays the other main maid Aibileen (and the true lead of the film), who in the complete opposite direction of Spencer's Minny, takes her oppression with a somber kind of dignity. A tragic figure of history indeed. Davis, an Oscar nominee two years ago for Doubt, gives what is probably the deepest, most sincere performance in the whole damn film. Due to her's being a more subdued role, her Oscar chances are probably a bit lesser than Spencer's (and will probably be relegated from lead to supporting) but more deserving. The film also highlights Sissy Spacek and Allison Janney as Southern mothers with varying degrees of cliche but also varying degrees of Southern charm. It is in these roles, all women, that make one think, rightly or wrongly (could go either way really), of a sort of message movie version of Steel Magnolias. The stereotypes are just as indelible.

Really though, it does come down to The Help, which not just incidentally is based on a best seller, being a (pun very much intended) whitewashed version of what was happening in the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Let's face it, anyone who does not know the way blacks were treated in America in the middle of the last century, and in the deep South especially, has been living under a rock lo these many decades. In this day and age - where we have our first African-American president - I do not think we need to be coddled when it comes to the atrocities of the past. In the same manner, we do not need to be told of these atrocities through the helpfulness of those genteel and kindly white folks in the forefront of our films. Yes, one cannot show what was going on in places like Jackson, Mississippi without showing the whites (both the good and the bad) but to pander to Middle American audiences like such is just plain insulting. Spike Lee had interracial throughlines going on in his subversive (and quite brilliant really) Do the Right Thing but never needed either race to explain the other. Jack and Ennis were perfectly fine (relatively speaking of course) in Brokeback Mountain without the need of a straight person to guide us through.

Of course this is, as I said earlier, just par for the course of mainstream moviemaking. The main problem, though definitely tying in with the above racial pandering, is the utter mediocrity of the whole bloody affair (or should I say bloodless since the violence of the times is mostly spoken of and not shown). Nothing in The Help ever happens that anyone with any sense of narrative storytelling knowledge (aka, anyone who has ever watched movies) doesn't know is coming the proverbial mile away. Everything is tied up with pretty bows and fancy ribbons as if the civil rights movement was nothing more than a Disney ride. A whitewashed affair indeed and a rather middling one at that. [08/15/11]