The Help is a middle-of-the-road message movie. It’s a safe, conventional drama dealing with a dark, disturbing subject: racism in America.
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestseller and book-club magnet, The Help is the story of the interaction between white housewives and their African-American housemaids in Jackson, Miss. in the early 1960s. When recent college graduate Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns home to Jackson, she gets a job at the local newspaper writing housework columns. Since Skeeter knows nothing about housework, she enlists Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a friend’s maid, to help her with the cleaning know-how.
As Skeeter spends time with Aibileen she becomes more aware of the racial bigotry that fuels every interaction between housewives and maids in her hometown and decides to write a book detailing domestic life in Jackson from the perspective of the maids. She interviews Aibileen for source material and eventually other maids offer to tell Skeeter their stories, including Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), Aibileen’s best friend. Through these interviews, Skeeter begins to understand the deep, unspoken connection between the maids and their employers, and the complete dependence of the white housewives upon their African-American maids.
Due to its conventional story, The Help is a film that is carried by its performances and one performance in particular overshadows all others. Viola Davis, best known for her 10-minute, Oscar nominated appearance in 2008’s Doubt, is simply terrific. Her performance is a careful balance of understated, silent fury and tender affection.
We feel her deep love for the white children she raises as well as the rage that boils beneath her stoic exterior. Although The Help is advertised as Skeeter’s story, this is really Aibileen’s film. She even narrates. There is no doubt that Davis offers the film’s best performance and another Oscar nomination for her isn’t unthinkable.
Octavia Spencer, playing Aibileen’s best friend Minny, commands the role of comic relief. Minny could easily have been a one-note caricature of the sassy African-American woman that Hollywood is so familiar with, but Spencer makes it far more than that. Yes, she is funny and the source of much of the film’s humour — one instance in which she gets revenge on a wicked employer seems to belong in a raunchy comedy — but her relationship with her hapless employer Celia Foote (The Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain) is moving and reveals the wounded core of Minny that lurks beneath her comic exterior.
Also worth noting is Emma Stone’s performance as Skeeter. Stone (possibly the best young actress in Hollywood) again proves why she is so worthy of the adoration she currently receives from audiences. Her energy and honesty is infectious and she makes her character more than a pandering avatar for “enlightened” white viewers.
Along with Bridesmaids, The Help offers up this year’s strongest female ensemble. Although upon first glance the characters seem like stereotypes, the film goes to great lengths to show that these are fully formed characters with their own unique perspectives and motivations. Even Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the racist ringleader of the young white housewives, is given enough development and focus to make her more than just the despicable villain.
Much of this is the result of the film’s generous running time of 146 minutes. The length allows the film to focus equally on each of the major characters and round them out into three-dimensional individuals, but it also makes the film drag a little. Such an excessive running time seems hardly justifiable for this type of drama.
Worthy of discussion by better, more equipped minds is the racial component of The Help. When this year’s highest profile film involving African-Americans has them playing maids, it reveals something unflattering about Hollywood. That’s not to say The Help should have focused on African-Americans in other roles — it is very deliberately a story of African-American maids in the 1960s and could not be about something else — but it merely illuminates how little “progressive” Hollywood’s roles for African-Americans have changed since the days of Gone with the Wind.
However, The Help is not Do the Right Thing, and it’s not trying to be. Nor should it be. Not every film dealing with racial issues needs to be radical or explicitly activist. Some films with race as the central conflict are bound to deal with it through characters who are not breaking boundaries or upsetting the social order. That’s not to say that Aibileen and Minny are complacent — they most definitely are not — but like most people living a life of hard circumstances, they try to survive within their social roles despite the terrible injustices they face.
Still, The Help is a feel-good film and as such, it is guilty of glossing over many of the racial issues in order to assure its cathartic ending. It is based on a book-club book, after all, and fans of the novel are sure to be pleased by this caring, effective adaptation.
The Help is not as progressive as it would like to be nor as backwards as some critics have called it. It is simply a good film, well acted and with a strong emotional cord that will move and reassure viewers, although not challenge them.
image: Dreamworks/Touchstone Pictures