Having stomached the middle-of-the-road, crowd pleasing feel-goodery of The Blind Side in 2009, I figured I’d be able to swallow The Help even though the mushy marketing set off alarm bells early on. It turns out the marketing only told half the story. Far worse than simply being manipulative, The Help is sort of loathsome. It’s a bit of retrospective fakery; a scrubbed and sanitized vision of the racist South that lets its modern audience off the hook by giving it a progressive, saintly white girl to cling to while demonizing the villains so there is no danger we might see ourselves in them.
Emma Stone is the irritatingly nicknamed “Skeeter,” a renegade Southern belle who returns home from college in the early 1960s to find that Constantine, the black domestic who essentially raised her, has disappeared. At the same time, she’s surprised to learn (apparently for the first time) that all her socialite friends are horrifying racists who treat their maids, many of whom raised them, as though they’re subhuman.
Though it is against the Jim Crow laws still on the books in Mississippi at the time, Skeeter manages to convince a group of mistreated maids, led by Aibileen and Minnie (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer), to share their horror stories for a book she’s writing. The result, naturally, is a scandal for the whole community, but it launches Skeeter’s literary career. Along the way, Skeeter gets to the bottom of what really happened to Constantine and in the process learns that the problems plaguing the town in which she grew up might not stop at her front door.
All of that is fine, but the book upon which the film is based was published from the safe vantage point of 2009. There was no Skeeter in the early 1960s and there was no book shining a light on the real life suffering of African-American domestics at the time. The film’s tagline “Change begins with a whisper” is a lie. Real civil rights change began with resistance and violent retribution. The Help is just wishful thinking. It’s not un-entertaining and it might even be tolerable if it offered some usable message for us to take away, but it never does. Instead the film provides a kind of phony absolution, sending its audience back into the real world feeling confident and secure in their relative racial magnanimity.
Almost enough to make The Help worth seeing despite its flaws, Viola Davis’ performance as Aibileen is a pleasure to watch. As the eternally put upon but always quietly dignified housekeeper, her eyes reveal her torment even as she’s filling an innocent white child with the love that child isn’t getting from her own mother. It’s a level of pain the rest of the film only toys with when it’s safe.
Also excellent is an energetic and funny Octavia Spencer as Minnie. As written, her character is uncomfortably close to the sassy black stereotype, but Spencer mostly makes her feel well rounded and human. Funny as she is, some of her strongest moments come when she must confront her own mounting hardships.
Though Aibileen and Minnie are allowed to share the narrative, 90 percent of the story is told from the perspective of the saintly Skeeter. Normally appealing Emma Stone seems a little out of her element here, but maybe the character is simply underwritten. You can tell she’s one of the good whites though because the production designers made sure they included Native Son and To Kill a Mockingbird on her bookshelf in an eye-rolling bit of heavy handedness. She’s the character with the most story arc and she’s the obvious audience surrogate.
Meanwhile, the villains of the piece are gaudy cartoons. Bryce Dallas Howard gobbles scenery as the queen bee bitch center of Skeeter’s social circle. She’s so comically horrible there’s no danger the audience might see some of themselves in her. God forbid! The result is a story distilled into obvious, easily digestible quantities of good and evil with zero moral gray area. Skeeter’s mother (well-played by Allison Janney) provides an excellent opportunity for some of this soul searching ambiguity, but instead the character simply switches from one attitude to another in an entirely unbelievable and unremarked upon last-minute about face. The filmmakers don’t want to do anything to deflate the crowd pleasing uplift and mar The Help’s box office fortunes. That’s offensive when you consider the real life traumas upon which the film is coldly capitalizing.
Rounding out the cast, Sissy Spacek and Jessica Chastain shine in mostly humorous and colorful roles – Spacek as Howard’s bluntly-spoken mother and Chastain as kind of a fallen woman. Both are excellent and entertaining.
Though many of the performances are excellent, they exist in a weird ahistorical vacuum almost completely devoid of the real dangers of being black in the 1960s. One character commits an amusing act of, shall we say sweet, revenge against her employer. It’s a laugh-out-loud-and-cheer moment for the audience, but its not so funny in light of the violent reprisal that probably would’ve followed in real life when her subversion was discovered.
Lip service is paid to the dangers the rebellious maids risk by speaking out even anonymously, but The Help never makes you really feel them. The assassination of Medgar Evers sort of glides by in the background of the story at one point to lend the proceedings some heft and authenticity, but it’s as bogus as the rest of the film. Where is the constant institutionalized fear that kept an entire race of people at a disadvantage for centuries? Admittedly there’s a hint of that oppression in a few scenes (including one involving some rough dealings by the white police) and The Help threatens to actually mean something in these scattered moments, but they’re over as quickly as they start.
While it offers some nice performances, a few laughs, a couple of tears and all the good intentions in the world, The Help is unfortunately a load of nonsense. It has little to teach us about the frighteningly recent past or about ourselves and, as some kind of wake-up call to racism, it’s about 50 years too late. All that’s left is a disposable entertainment appallingly rooted in the very real suffering of generations.
Filed under: Review