Thursday, August 11, 2011

Help Me Help You: THE HELP

Written and directed by Tate Taylor from the bestselling novel by Katheryn Stockett, The Help is a glossy middlebrow Hollywood civil-rights drama. It’s set in the early 60’s in Jackson, Mississippi and concerns itself with the plight of African American women working as maids cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing for well-to-do white women. The film is all well and good, filled with fine intentions. On its surface, however, several storytelling decisions water down the point of view to make institutionalized racism easier for mainstream audiences to handle.

First, the story is kicked off from the perspective of a white woman (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate and aspiring journalist who gets it in her head to help write down and take the help’s stories to the larger public. Second, there’s the case of the film’s villain, for Hollywood can’t just make racism itself the subject of scorn and therefore requires a character to stand in as its personification. Here it’s a women’s club leader (Bryce Dallas Howard) who drafts a bill to require private citizens in the town to have a separate bathroom in their homes for their black employees. She’s not a real character to speak of, just pure racist evil made all the worse for her not knowing the extent of her own flaws. “You know, there’s some real racists in this town!” she obliviously exclaims at one point.

But here I go, sounding like I disliked The Help when really I was drawn into it past these problems. Emma Stone’s story ends up sharing its space with two maids who are wonderfully drawn characters, stirringly acted. The great Viola Davis anchors this movie with her weary spirit, even narrating occasional sections of the film in her lovely alto voice. She’s the first Jackson maid to agree to help with the book project. After having worked since the age of 14 raising other people’s babies, cooking other people’s meals, cleaning other people’s valuables, and gaining from it all far too little in the way of money and respect, she’s more than ready to tell her life’s stories. She convinces her best friend, played with great humor and poignant warmth by Octavia Spencer, to speak up as well. Together, the three women prepare to reveal the insidious injustices of this system of employment.

All the while, the society of Jackson is explored through a talented ensemble cast. Allison Janney plays Stone’s fussy, cancer-patient mother who really does mean well, while Sissy Spacek plays the aged mother of the villain as a cranky old lady with moments of clarity. Amongst the younger members of the cast, Jessica Chastain plays a woman who is just a little too much of an individual and is thus cruelly outcast from the local society of debutants and bridge games. In these characters, there is the insistence that gentle Southern cruelty cuts even those who just barely fall out of the line of acceptability. This is no equivalence to the pain of institutionalized racism, but rather an illustration of how tightly controlled this society is.

Because Taylor focuses on the deeply felt performances from these women, the film held my attention. Its visually undistinguished and loosely paced, but it’s a relentless crowd-pleaser, pushing all the expected, but often welcomed, buttons. But there’s a sense in the slickness of the whole production that the proceedings are being held ever-so-slightly back from the full grim reality of the situations presented. There’s a little rosy historical handholding in its sunny disposition punctuated by cruel behavior from the nastier characters. It’s as if the filmmakers were insisting that yes, things were bad then, but that was the past.

What breaks through this veneer of ossified history is the immediacy of the performances, from Davis and Spencer especially. I truly cared about what happened to them and the movie treats them with total respect as characters and as people. By the end, the movie wisely skips artificial uplift and arrives at something just a little more honest than I expected, giving these characters a small victory tainted by a sense that little has actually changed. Racism isn’t going to disappear over night.

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