European films and literature, especially British films and literature, have long been obsessed with the relationship between domestic workers and their employers. American films on the other hand… well, Americans aren’t that used to the notion of having domestic workers in the first place. We’ve never had our version of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or The Rules of the Game or The Remains of the Day, and that might be because America’s legacy of domestic work (and class distinction in general) is heavily intertwined with America’s even messier legacy of racial strife. It’s because of this that there was some real potential to be found in exploring the lives of African American maids in the Deep South during the late 60s. That said, I kind of doubted that any major insights would be found in The Help, a film based on an Oprah-approved novel that was noted more for its ability to fly off the shelf than for its literary or political merit. From its inception this property has been loved only by groups whose taste I have little respect for, namely Oprah viewers and Academy voters, and I can’t say I had a lot of enthusiasm about seeing it. Still, I felt it had earned enough of a following that it was worth investigating, so I finally rented it (not an easy task) and gave it a watch.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the late 60s, the film primarily follows Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone), who is known as Skeeter to her friends and family. Skeeter has just returned from college and is trying to establish herself as a journalist. The only writing job she can find in Jackson involves writing a newspaper advice column giving cleaning advice for housewives. Skeeter is of course ill-equipped to give cleaning advice, so she decides to ask her friend’s maid/babysitter Aibileen (Viola Davis) for some advice. After talking to Aibileen for a short while Skeeter begins thinking hard about the condition of these women who are responsible for raising the children in every upper-class family in the South. Skeeter approaches Aibileen about writing a book about the condition of black maids, which Aibileen agrees to take part in after much hesitation. This project will also lead her to interview other maids including Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a “troublemaker” who had recently been fired by the domineering racist ringleader Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has been at the forefront of a movement to require separate bathrooms for African American hired help.
I’ve long noticed that whenever race comes up in Hollywood produced period films the main character is almost always enlightened beyond their time. Even if the film is set in a time and place where 99% of white people were card-carrying racists, the main character will always have thoroughly modern ideas about race and will happily defend and befriend whatever oppressed class is being depicted. That’s partly just because writers desperately want their main characters to be as likable as possible, but I feel like it also taps into this white-person fantasy that if they were around back then, they’d be one of the enlightened 1%, that they would have never been swept up in the hateful ideology that they would surely have been indoctrinated into. This is, of course, bullshit. Racism is a social construction, it’s not something you’re born resistant to, and people generally conform to the norms of society regardless of how repugnant they may seem in retrospect.
Even within the long history of unrealistically tolerant, Skeeter is a particularly unbelievable character. Skeeter was supposedly born and raised in the same environment as Hilly, and yet she hardly seems like a Southern woman from the sixties. Hell, she doesn’t even seem like a Northern woman from the sixties. She seems like a time traveler from Southern California circa 2011, who is inexplicably naïve about the way things work in the nation’s most racist state during a time of incredible racial conflict. Everything about her from her speech patterns to her hairstyle seems out of place in Jackson and we’re given nothing aside from her time at Ole Miss to explain why she’s so much more enlightened than the people around her. Even movies like Dances With Wolves, that deal with similar “tolerant white person in intolerant times” themes at least give their characters an arc in which they start out intolerant and become tolerant because of their experiences.
To be fair to the film, there are some decent production values to be found and some very good acting as well. Viola Davis does a great of being both long-suffering and internally strong in the role of Aibileen. Octavia Spencer, whose previous roles include such roles as Bank Co-Worker #1, Neighbor in Alley, and Check-In Girl comes out of nowhere to really impress in her role as a younger and more confrontational woman in a similar situation. The white side of the cast has some standout performers as well, particularly Bryce Dallas Howard who is deliciously evil in the film, and Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother. I wasn’t so enamored with Emma Stone, who does nothing to address the problems with her character and who just seems out of place in the film, and I also didn’t think much of Jessica Chastain’s Oscar nominated turn as the generally irritating Celia Foote.
Had the film been written and/or directed by a more adventurous filmmaker we might have seen a more invigorating and insightful film made out of this material. Instead the film was made by Tate Taylor, a man who seems to have gotten the job because he was a close friend of author Kathryn Stockett. Taylor seems to have done nothing to try to elevate the book and seems to have slavishly followed it from beginning to end. In particular I suspect that someone like Spike Lee would have known better than to have included a horrendously misguided sub-plot about the woman who raised Skeeter, but would (spoiler warning, I guess) eventually die of a “broken heart” because she is deprived of the privilege of serving white people late into her life. This piece, which serves little purpose other than to be a corny emotional moment late in the film, completely goes against pretty much everything that the film purports to be about. This is emblematic of the film’s overall problem: it’s a sugary “tear-jerker” first and a study of racism second.
When all is said though, The Help wasn’t as intolerable as I expected it to be, but then again I expected it to be pretty damn intolerable. As far as questionable Oscar nominees about racial issues, this certainly isn’t anywhere near as bad as The Blind Side, which was a film that Hilly Holbrook may well have enjoyed. This film at least mostly seems to have its heart in the right place; it’s just that, like Driving Miss Daisy before it, it’s far from being cutting edge. this Its depiction of racism in the South might be enlightening to a class of middle school students, but I think it takes a little more than this in order to really bring something to the table for an educated adult audience. Within the continuum of movies about race in America, this simply feels rather regressive even when compared to debatably problematic films like Crash and American History X. As a simple drama, the movie is mostly acceptable, but when you deal with material like this there are certain high standards that I expect movies to live up to, and this doesn’t.
**1/2 out of Four