Note: I resisted watching it but we rented it last night to see what all the fuss is about. Yet another “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Amistad.”
Publication Date Aug. 12, 2011 – by Peter Canavese, Palo Alto Online
Hollywood has a pernicious tradition that’s been dubbed, by one professor, the “anti-racist-white-hero film.” You know it unconsciously, if not consciously: a movie purportedly about racism afflicting an oppressed community, but actually about the experience of the affluent white person defending that community. “Cry Freedom.” “Mississippi Burning.” Director Edward Zwick scored a hat trick over the years, with “Glory,” “The Last Samurai” and “Blood Diamond.”
And now we have “The Help,” an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel by writer-director Tate Taylor, her lifelong friend. Where the novel adopts multiple perspectives to tell its story of Jim Crow-era Mississippi, Taylor’s film sticks closely to 23-year-old aspiring journalist “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), an implicit audience surrogate meant to reassure the white viewer that he or she is “one of the good ones,” just like the enlightened protagonist.
Despite being a privileged white girl obliged to play nice with the community’s nasty cliques of racists, Skeeter has the soul of a rebel. She decides to help the help — that is, work against the mistreatment of local maids by getting them to tell her their stories, which Skeeter will fashion into a book she’s writing on spec for Harper & Row editor Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen).
Skeeter’s commitment to social justice contrasts with the inability of her mother (Allison Janney) to step up, and the film doesn’t much complicate Skeeter’s heroism with the obvious career boost the book will give her: She’s just a girl whose intentions are good.
As for the help, they’re treated as second-class citizens as a matter of course. Worse, high-strung socialite Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) has mounted a campaign to officially banish all African-American servants to outhouses, since they aren’t good enough or clean enough to use the indoor facilities. Though such virulent racism rings true to the time and place, Howard plays Hilly to the hilt (if she had a moustache, she’d be twirling it), the better for audiences to say, “Whew! I’m not a racist like her!”
After much hand-wringing about the consequences, maid Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) can no longer stand by. She agrees to be interviewed by Skeeter and, better yet, takes the initiative to write down her own accounts — of employer mistreatment and the expectations put on a maid not only to cook and clean for 95 cents an hour, but also raise the employer’s children.
Much is made of the children’s touching mother-daughter bonds with their maids: Cicely Tyson serves as the film’s godmother by playing, in flashback, Skeeter’s longtime, maternal maid. Eventually, Aibileen’s best friend, sassy Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), joins Skeeter’s project, and others follow.
Taylor’s studiously styleless direction goes down easy: Nothing in “The Help” could be described as “challenging.” If anything, the style spikes on the cartoon meter during anything involving Hilly and her serial comeuppances (all involving toilet humor; all stretching credibility in their particulars).
“The Help” has essentially one good excuse to exist: Davis, the Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning powerhouse who radiates Aibileen’s deep pain and coiled-anger determination in another remarkable performance. Unfortunately, Aibileen disappears for long stretches to accommodate the white characters (including Jessica Chastain’s guileless employer).
If only “The Help” accepted more of Davis’ help, we might have a work of art on our hands instead of another condescending, half-baked history lesson.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material. 2 hours, 27 minutes.