Behind the kitchen doors seperating stately dining rooms from the servants’ washing and cleaning, you find “The Help”.
They cooked, cleaned and raised children for rich white families during the 1960s, all the while expected to use outdoor bathrooms to prevent any “diseases.” A tragic concept for sure, that manages fairly well as a 137-minute tearjerker. It’s an enjoyable enough melodrama with some splendid performances.
At its core, this is film about journalism ethics. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is an aspiring young reporter who’s just moved back home to Jackson, Mississippi. She runs the “cleaning” column for the Jackson Journal, informing readers on how best to keep the house spick-and-span. To help with her research, Skeeter asks Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a friend’s maid, to help with the cleaning tips.
But after noticing how ‘the help’ is treated, Skeeter finds a more interesting story: writing a book for Harper & Row on the subculture of black maids in the South. Of course Aibileen resists at first, this kind of slander could be considered illegal or, most likely, get her mugged or killed, but eventually she grows tired of the awful treatment…and so do several others in town.
The journalist in me is very inspired by the film’s approach to the Civil Rights movement. This is the story most reporters dream of, yet it also raises other concerns. Who’s taking a greater chance, the reporter or the maids (that answer should be pretty easy)? Who should get paid for the book? Lastly, would a white author’s rise to success in such a way be a form of exploitation?
While the story lingers in corny Hallmark moments and trite caricatures of racism, the film is strongest because of its stellar cast. Emma Stone has been an on-screen delight since her breakout role in “Superbad”, and that infectious raspy voice does her well here, as a white privileged young lady who just can’t be the Southern belle everyone expects. Octavia Spencer, as Minny Jackson, provides some much-needed humor and a large dose of charisma throughout the film. And fresh off her role in the arthouse film, “The Tree of Life”, Jessica Chastain, as Celia Foote, does ditzy to the “T”, or should it be to the “D”?
Allison Janney – Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte Phelan – goes through the most substantial changes, but her transformation only feels enjoyable because of the actress, not any logical character. Like her role “Juno”, she’s expected to mouth off to some ignorant brat––except she’s initially just as prejudiced as others, turning a satisfying piece of dialogue into little more than a narrative trick.
Bryce Dallas Howard always finds a way to prove her acting chops, but this is easily the most superficial role she’s undertaken (that’s including her tragic digression into the “Twilight” universe).
Sure, she plays despicable well, as Hilly Holbrook, who knows how to spew venom and Bible verses in the same sentence, but we’ve seen this role many times before. She’s the only significant example of blatant racism, letting many others off the hook. Sadly, this takes away the complexity of institutionalized racism, turning it into something easily solved by weaning out a couple bad seeds. If only life were as simple as a movie.
While Stone is a spectacular lead, the real winner here is her co-lead, Viola Davis. With a previous Oscar nomination for her role in “Doubt”, Davis out acts everyone––as she often does. Like Howard, she doesn’t take the character to any new heights, but simply proves an on-screen delight.
“The Help” is an enjoyable film that handles race issues with less naive sentiment than “The Blind Side” (just barely), but it’s not entirely a rich, educational ride. At least it’s less about the patronizing doctrine of charity, instead emphasizing a joint effort to bring about social change. But there’s a danger here to promote the white savior mentality (just watch “Avatar” for an example), and the film doesn’t know how to effectively end, trailing off into multiple tangents.
Now, please don’t think me completely pessimistic. After a summer of blockbuster busts, “The Help” is a simply structured film that’s easy to watch. Of course, such content shouldn’t be easy viewing, but the combination of humor and emotion usually works.
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