History has determined which race-relations film from 1989 — “Driving Miss Daisy” (based on Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play) or “Do the Right Thing” (from director Spike Lee) — had the stuff to last past that year’s Academy Awards season. I’m hardly the first to say it: The Oscar went to the wrong movie that year. Institutional Hollywood typically favors soft-serve vanilla over more interesting flavors.
These two films are on my mind this week, having reviewed — positively, mostly, and mostly thanks to Viola Davis — the film version of Kathryn Stockett’s book-club favorite “The Help.” It shares with the Oscar-laden “Driving Miss Daisy” an evocation of the roiling American South that placates and reassures, through comedy as well as sentimentality plus the occasional sliver of sharper truth. Truth, in this milieu, lies in whatever ambiguities and moral complexities the right actor can dig out of a character somewhere in between Comically Obvious Racist and Human Saint, Personified. Davis is that right actor.
The adaptation challenges with both these properties (Uhry’s and Stockett’s) reveal a lot about what a performer can accomplish when given the room. On stage in a perceptive, easy-breathing production, “Driving Miss Daisy” works. On stage, there is no pressure or expectation to deliver a realistic time and place, merely a suggestion of it. The actors can carry the day and steer a simple story of an employer-employee relationship around the more obvious, condescending platitudes.
Bruce Beresford’s film version of “Driving Miss Daisy” had the right actors, Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, but hyped and falsified everything around them into Oscar-winning blather. It “worked,” meaning the film won the Oscar. But that Hans Zimmer musical theme alone was enough to squash what was charming about the original play.
“The Help” has gone in the other direction, starting from a different place. The novel switches among three narrators, two African American and one white, in early 1960s Jackson, Miss., yet it’s essentially about the young white female’s coming of age and triumph of the human spirit. (The character in question, Skeeter, is not very interesting; she’s the same forward-thinking, vaguely anachronistic iconoclast from beginning to end.) The film version lets Davis’ character, Aibileen, run more of the narrative show. The difference improves things substantially. At its most synthetic, “The Help” may be “Racism for Dummies,” but the female-driven cast takes care of our wish-fulfillment needs. They make us believe what isn’t necessarily believable or dimensional.
In “The Help,” Sissy Spacek plays a relatively minor role, that of the dementia-addled mother of the story’s most patently awful racist, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Seeing Spacek, one of our best screen performers, enliven “The Help” reminded me that a year after Hoke drove Miss Daisy and Sal’s Pizzeria started a riot, a little film called “The Long Walk Home” came and went, starring Whoopi Goldberg as a 1955-era maid working for a chilly Montgomery, Ala., social maven played by Spacek.
The movie, frankly, wasn’t and isn’t much. It’s soft and schematic. Yet here again we see what two actresses can do, separately and together, to toughen up a tidy story. Goldberg works hard, and subtly, to stay in period even when every dramatic instinct is telling her to up the stakes. The character we see Spacek create, out of well-honed poise, strict societal training and a witty hauteur, is exactly the sort of character missing from “The Help.”
If we believe what Hollywood tells us, and we judge American matters of race and class and history by its melodramas, the early ‘60s civil rights wars were won by a single, ruthless white FBI agent (“Mississippi Burning”). The story of the Civil War’s African-American fighting men were really only important because they supported the story of a callow white commander learning to become a better man (“Glory”). The financial realities are cruel: Such stories might not make it to the screen at all without juicy parts for bankable white performers. But at some point, if you play along with the way things have been done and insist on telling racially complicated stories from simplified white perspectives, you’re not doing anything to amplify anyone’s moviegoing life.
Well. At least “The Help,” which manages to improve on its source material, went in the right direction and gave its key actress room to explore and relay something. That actress, second-billed, is Davis. In a decade or two, despite Emma Stone’s talent, some of us may have trouble remembering who played the top-billed role.