Review: The Help

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So often it seems that the story of African Americans in Hollywood films also has to be told from the white point of view. Prejudice is shown as wrong by a white person standing up and fighting back, with the aggrieved blacks benefiting from their courage. There is some of that in The Help, but mercifully not enough to sink it. The Help is pasteurized history, but it still has enough of the good stuff to be worthwhile.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, The Help is about a peculiar social aspect of that time and place. White families of means employ black maids, who cook their food, clean their houses, and, most importantly, raise their children. These children consider these maids more maternal than their distant, social-climbing mothers, but when the time comes to employ their own maids, they resort to their ugly behavior, treating these women like chattel.

The Help focuses on a few households. One is taken care of by Aibilene (Viola Davis), who watches over the child of a woman who doesn’t even know to change the baby’s diapers. The other is the home of Hilly Holbrook, (Bryce Dallas Howard) the queen bee of Jackson society and as mean as a snake. She has a special obsession with toilets–she wants a law passed that all homes must have separate bathroom facilities for their colored help. She fires her maid Minnie (Octavia Spencer) for violating the code of the commode.

Then there’s Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), who went to college with more on her mind that snaring a husband. She is unmarried (something of a scandal) and gets a job with the newspaper writing a household hints column. But she has more serious literary ambitions. Sympathizing with the plight of these women, she endeavors to interview them for a book. After a series of indignities, she gains the trust of Aibilene and Minnie, and they tell their horror stories to her.

Of course how these women were treated is despicable, and only the members of Aryan Nation would think otherwise. But I wonder how many of the people watching this film today, cheering as Howard gets her particularly vile comeuppance, would have been the same people screaming epithets at those students as they tried to enter Central High School in Little Rock, or cheered the death of Medgar Evers. I’m not immune from this–my grandparents weren’t exactly enlightened thinkers on race, and used the N-word casually. This film would have been courageous fifty years ago, and also impossible to release in the South. To watch it today from the safety of half a century seems like watching animals behind a wall of glass.

But The Help was made now, and I can’t judge it on any other terms. As such, it’s a crowd-pleasing absolution for white guilt. And where it succeeds more than other recent films is that the white eyes–Stone’s–aren’t the dominating feature of the film. This film instead belongs to Viola Davis. A similar film, The Blind Side, was all about deifying Sandra Bullock’s character, relegating the black character to the status of family pet. Davis’s Aibilene is no passive bystander. She is the focus of the film, and wears the indignity of her life on her face with such great skill that the faults of the film seem less magnified.

There are faults. A few subplots are either clumsy or bizarre. Once fired, Spencer gets a job with a woman (Jessica Chastain) who is ostracized by the other ladies, presumably because of her white trash origins. The relationship between the two takes on a strange, sit-com like quality. I was also completely uninterested in scenes involving in Stone’s love life. And the villains of the piece, led by Howard, are mostly cardboard.

But the heart of the story, Aibilene’s struggle to maintain her dignity in the face of appalling prejudice, makes this all worthwhile. Spencer is also quite good, giving the Aunt Jemima stereotype a boot in the pants. A lot of other familiar actresses, such as Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Mary Steenburgen, also turn in effective performances. Cicely Tyson is also moving in her brief role as the maid who raised Stone, but was sent away in a manner we don’t find out about until the end of the film.

Watching The Help I was reminded of when Roots first aired. Our family, like millions of others, were transfixed by the week it was on television, back in 1977. What a turning point in American cultural history it was when everyone, white people included, cheered when Ben Vereen told good old Lloyd Bridges that if he ever harmed one of his’n again, he’d kill him. That was almost 35 years ago. The Help doesn’t break any new ground, but at least it’s focused on the right character.

My grade for The Help: B-

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

12 responses »

  1. This film would have been courageous fifty years ago, and also impossible to release in the South.

    I agree with you on this, but it brings up another point. There is no way the book (in the movie) would have ever been sold in stores in the South. Stores would have just refused to carry it.

    This movie left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, I cried like a baby. Yes, it’s a “feel-good” movie, but for who? Reliving the tragedies of the South in the 60’s doesn’t seem like it would “feel-good” for black or white.

    The only thing I can see is if the heros in this movie are a parallel to the bravery of Rosa Parks. Except instead of focusing on Rosa Parks, we also learn about a white person who said it was okay to sit next to her at the front of the bus.

    But I wonder how many of the people watching this film today, cheering as Howard gets her particularly vile comeuppance, would have been the same people screaming epithets at those students as they tried to enter Central High School in Little Rock, or cheered the death of Medgar Evers.

    I think you’re absolutely right about this. I would love to think that I would have been the kind of person to stand up and fight for civil rights during that time. But that takes a lot of guts, and not everyone is that brave. Just think about all the Germans who didn’t think Nazism was evil in the 40’s. Or at least, they weren’t brave enough to stand up to it because they’d be risking their lives. The Civil Rights movement was not much different.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really do dream of a world where everyone can coexist peacefully and tolerance is practiced by everyone. But I’m a dreamer, not a fighter.

  2. Yeah, I don’t see the appeal of Stone, either. She’s like your friend’s awkward niece that you see one day and never see again until a year later and you know you’ve seen her before and your friend says ‘That’s my niece’ and you show some recognition, but you really don’t remember her at all, one: because it’s your friend’s niece and because she just doesn’t make an impression.

  3. What happens to Howard? They kill her?

    I have a feeling that the Howard’s infamous scene will be come a classic – spawning parodies and Oscar jokes.

  4. What happens to Howard? They kill her?

    Yes. The maids gather a small arsenal and systematically shoot down all the white women. Minnie tells Howard, “I like you, Hilly. I’m gonna kill you last.”

  5. NOW I really want to see this.
    Slim…you just quoted Schwarzenegger…and I just fell for you a little.

  6. Had to look it up. That’s awful. Not even a racist deserves that. Hitler? Yes. Bin Laden? Yes. Bitchy Southern belle racist? No.

  7. Just think about all the Germans who didn’t think Nazism was evil in the 40′s. Or at least, they weren’t brave enough to stand up to it because they’d be risking their lives. The Civil Rights movement was not much different.

    I’m guessing that I’m going to surprise everyone by saying that I a) went to see The Help, and b) really liked it. And I think this quote gets to something that I thought the movie portrayed very well.

    Of course, the movie is primarily about the oppression of black people in the South. But it’s also about how the oppression of white people is needed to keep that societal order in place. After all, while white people are the privileged class (well, provided they have a satisfactory social pedigree), they too live under the constant threat of ostracism or even violence if they step out of line.

    So I think that’s the movie’s main surprise, is that it goes beyond the mistreatment of blacks to show how this sickness pervades the whole of society. It really isn’t all that different from Nazi Germany, because the only way you can get this scheme to work is to cast a wide net in terms of persecution. Look at how the very fact of Skeeter’s education sets her apart from the others in her social group, and how she’s more or less an outcast just because she has opinions of her own. People won’t behave like this on their own, they need to be intimidated and threatened and punished when they break ranks.

    Which is not, of course, to say that white people had it just as bad – of course that would be an absurd and offensive thing to say. But for all the wailing from (mostly white) critics about the focus on a perky young white character, I think the movie actually approaches racism from a much different white perspective than most movies, especially from Hollywood. And it does so while giving a very powerful voice to black characters that have been marginalized by society.

    And I think that’s a rather remarkable accomplishment.

  8. A note to Filmman about Emma Stone’s feet: you have a distinctly minority opinion. On the foot fetishist site WikiFeet, Stone has the highest rated feet of anyone, out of tens of thousands of actresses, singers, models, etc. You would get drummed out of the foot fetishist league. Just sayin’.

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