Before I went to see The Help I braced myself for a horribly misguided racial nightmare, but in the final analysis I found myself quite surprised. While I can see where people would take issue with this movie’s themes and execution, I personally found that it was a fairly balanced and mostly unproblematic story about women discovering their agency in a terrible time and place in American history.
Despite the fact that I did a course called “Film in Black and White” I can’t pretend to be an expert on African American representation in cinema, and I will defer to other people on that, but The Help is a fundamentally good hearted movie that mostly fails to condescend; it aims only to drown out cinemas with the embarrassing sniffles of audience members who don’t know that they’re being played – overtly so, but not offensively.
Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) returns from college to Jackson Mississippi, only to realise that she’s both outgrown all of the backwards racists that she grew up with. Upon gaining a job as the cleaning advice columnist at the local paper, she seeks assistance from her social circle’s maids, only to realise that the maids themselves have far more interesting stories to tell – and maybe she can journalistically cash in on the civil rights fad that’s going around.
A lot of the controversy surrounding The Help is about the fact that it features black women playing maids. The most obvious point that can be made about this is that it’s a film about African American maids in a time and a place where maids were predominantly, if not exclusively, African American. It’s built into the title. Socio-economic history is at play here, not cinematic stereotypes; this is an important distinction to make. Tension between the black and white characters is suitably depicted, with not every black character trusting every white one, and not every white character hating every black one – there is enough of a spectrum here for a believably human cast, although I was more than slightly disturbed when Octavia Spencer grabbed a piece of fried chicken and violently bit into it.
Another issue that popped up was the alleged depiction of “all black men” as abusive and violent. It was disappointing, then, to see that the one violent black man in the film isn’t even depicted on the screen. Patriarchy has little place in The Help; this film was never going to be about men, but rather the stratification of women – and black men definitely don’t come off second best here. All men are irrelevant in the eyes of writer/director Tate Taylor, and this is exactly why the romance subplot fails: it exists only to insert extra drama in the malnourished Skeeter portions of the film, and the lack of communication between Skeeter and her interest is unbelievable given the film’s context.
Stone’s Skeeter is a blatant framing device to gain entrée to the closed world of the maids of Mississippi. Through her interviews it becomes clear that this is not a film about a white woman who saves the poor black women of Mississippi from their woes, but rather that Skeeter has come back to town at a crucial junction in the history of civil rights; this is not a movie presented in a vacuum, but one in the time of Medgar Evers, JFK and Martin Luther King.
Skeeter is more of a tool than a character, inserted possibly to make the film more palatable to white audiences – if the “good” white characters were entirely periphery, this movie would probably be a lot more uncomfortable to a lot of people. Regardless of Skeeter’s importance, the positive side of the white women is ably supported by Sissy Spacek (who disappears for a large portion of the film) and the ever delightful Jessica Chastain, who as a blonde is easy to differentiate from her doppëlganger Bryce Dallas Howard.
Bryce Dallas Howard is masterful as the queen of the society racists, although the authority of her villainy knows too few bounds and has stretched credulity by the film’s end to allow for neatness. Still, Howard and Chastain alone could carry this movie on behalf of the white women, because they’re more believable than the Skeeter cipher.
Viola Davis is as good as she always is, and Octavia Spencer’s range is surprising. Any accusations of Uncle Tom behaviour levelled against them are overstated, as the “mammy” potential of either of these characters is severely downplayed. I could be wrong, but I’m not inclined to believe that I am.
I’ve spent a lot of time defending the politics of The Help, but it should be acknowledged that it’s a well made film that does exactly what it’s designed to do: it pushes every emotional button that it can, aiming to provoke both laughter and tears in its audience. The cast is more than up to the task, hitting every note exactly as they should. Tate would be a master of manipulation if either I weren’t so damned cynical or his moves weren’t so obvious (he introduces us to Jackson Mississippi by playing the Johnny Cash song “Jackson”); every dramatic and comedic rise and fall is telegraphed well in advance, but this goes with the territory of both the design of the film and the history of civil rights (but note that my limited experience with American audiences suggests that they are very easily shocked by open racism in a film or a play).
The Help is very much a product, but one that does exactly what it promises. The target demographics are entirely unlikely to care and will eat it up with vigour, feeling as if they’ve learned something from the two and a half hours they’ve just consumed. With a core cast that deftly handles sensitive material, it’s a product that goes down very smoothly indeed; its box office success is as unremarkable as it is welcome.