[12 August 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Movies about race usually fall into one of two categories: there is the “white savior saga”, a story usually told from the perspective of a Caucasian protagonist who goes on to “save” several minorities while exposing the injustices inherent in the system. It’s all high minded and very preachy. Then we have the inappropriately named “magic Negro movie” in which an African American hero, usually endowed with an unusual gift, shows the clueless whites what it’s like to be on the other side of the social fence. Think The Green Mile with a more politically proper position and you’ll understand.
In either case, the concept of institutionalized bigotry is often tossed aside in these kind of efforts for scripted struggles between insight and inequality, rendering the material (and message) anemic and underdeveloped. The latest example of the shaky subgenre, Dreamworks’ The Help, attempts to avoid both issues. Instead, it walks a very fine line between powerful and implausible, winding up on the side of a solid, sentimental entertainment.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) has just returned from college. It’s 1962 and she’s desperate to get a job as a writer. At the local Jackson, Mississippi daily, she is given the chance to play advice columnist…on household cleaning. Knowing little on the subject, she decides to ask the maids who work for her friends - specifically, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). Both are suspicious, as are their employers, including local bigot and segregation rebel rouser Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). This dim debutante believes in the separation of the races…and that’s that.
Skeeter soon sets her sights on writing a book about the life of African American servants in the ‘60s South. While her possible New York publisher is intrigued, the local minorities are not interested…that is, until they realize that the times, they are a changing and, perhaps, with this earnest white girl’s help, they can finally have their voices heard. It’s a revelation that will begin to rewrite Jackson history.
Over long and layered with too many subplots, The Help remains a viable victim of its own nobility. Sure, it’s still a well made movie with lots of terrific performances, ample heart, and a theme that needs exploring - the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s - but it can’t but seem superficial in light of its own source. Since this is not a real story, not based on fact or some non-fiction event, we are stuck with the melodramatic contrivances of a writer (who is white) reimagining the era as a series of heroes and villains.
On the side of right is Skeeter, her reluctant servant subjects, and the occasional enlightened members of their otherwise prejudiced community. Since there is no excuse for racism, the other side often comes across like plantation owners just waiting for their chance to be flayed by their insurgent slaves. This means we never understand the rationalization for Hilly’s cause, nor do we get a true sense of the stakes at hand.
Of course, this is all hindsight, the 20/20 tenets of a country that came close to splitting in two before finding the footing to (reluctantly) come together. Today, the clashes on display here - separate facilities and entrances for blacks, a sense of white entitlement and proposed ‘property’ laws - are mostly a thing of the past, and for once The Help understands this. It doesn’t strive to sell us on the wounds working their way through Jackson. Instead, we get to witness the obvious dichotomies between the established family unit and the notion that Caucasian parents couldn’t be bothered to raise their own kids. While never coming close to suggesting that this set-up lead to the eventual erosion of Jim Crow laws, we can see how those raised by black nannies and maids would come to defend, not deride, them.
Still, we have to have the wicked within the wise, a counterbalance to Stone’s stunned realizations and Davis/Spencer’s smart-aleck epiphanies. As a bigot, Ms. Howard has her work cut out for her. Luckily, the script avoids epithets to let her racism reside in more institutionalized, insidious ways. It is Hilly’s idea to push for a statewide ban on “coloreds” using the indoor bathroom facilities of the homes where they work. It is Hilly who reacts ridiculously when her brainchild is ignored (and eventually countermanded). It is Hilly who gets the broad spectrum speeches, crystallizing the extremist call in clipped, cultured bon mots. We are supposed to see how ingrained her beliefs are, how they reflect a reactionary, instinctual Southern stance. But since she’s just one woman, it’s hard to see her as a realistic threat.
Indeed, horror is what’s missing here…horror and a sense of the real world working its way into the isolation of Jackson. Skeeter’s storyline, loaded with a combination of anger, naiveté, and sly self-loathing, keeps getting in the way of Aibileen and Minny’s confessions. Even more aggravating is a reliance on a gross out gag to one-up the easily bullied bad guys. From love interests that end up slinking off to the side to insinuations of abuse and other evils that are merely mentioned in a kiss-off voice over, The Help often hinders its own cause. But then, like a smack to the back of the head, the movie makes its point in potent, commanding ways. Stone salvages her character, making the cause more important than the kookiness, while secondary characters stand and are finally recognized.
But it is Davis and Spencer who deliver us from Lifetime Lite. They are authoritative and world weary, capable of carrying this film and dozens like it on their slumped, strong shoulders. When they speak, the entire movie morphs into a quasi-crusade, a rush for recognition for a country that often forgets from where it came. Indeed, the best thing about The Help is how it offers up mostly gentle reminders of America’s recent, reprehensible past. It doesn’t beat audiences over the head with its examples, it merely lets Davis and Spencer speak. When they do, the pain and suffering is intrinsic in the dialogue, the depth of the issues laid bare in blatant, easy to swallow segments. They may seem antithetical to the kind of movie being made, but in truth, it’s the key reason why we tolerate the otherwise saccharine approach. While it’s too long and too timid, The Help is still a wonderful, evocative indictment. Instead of falling into formula, it uses familiarity and all its flaws to find its place in our hearts.