By Ezra Stead
The Help, USA / India / United Arab Emirates, 2011
Written and Directed by Tate Taylor
Based on the Book The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Tate Taylor’s film version of The Help is basically 2011’s answer to The Blind Side (2009); however you felt about that movie – whether indifferent, aggressively hateful, grudgingly appreciative or tearful and inspired – is undoubtedly how you will feel about this one. Both are well-made, well-acted films that are also, at their heart, about noble white people who take a stand against the appalling racism of their friends in order to help strong, stoic, oppressed black people. In other words, like The Blind Side, The Last Samurai (2003) or Dances with Wolves (1990), it is a film about non-white people told almost exclusively from the point-of-view of white people.
The main heroic white person at the center of The Help is Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a plucky young journalist in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, where, in case you didn’t know, black folks were not being treated well. After learning from her mother (Allison Janney) that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the black maid who raised Skeeter, is no longer with them for mysterious reasons, Skeeter takes an active interest in another black maid, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who works for Skeeter’s friend, Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly). Aibileen is the narrator and, ostensibly, the protagonist of the film, though it is Skeeter who ultimately goes through the redemptive character arc on her behalf. To be fair, though, the true standout performances of the film belong to Davis and Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, another maid who is close friends with Aibileen, and who is the second, after Aibileen, to get involved in Skeeter’s risky, secret project: to tell the stories of the black maids of Mississippi in a book (entitled The Help, of course) that will be published by fancy New York publisher Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen).
At the beginning of the film, Minny works for the film’s extremely hiss-able villain, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the queen bee of the social circle to which Skeeter and Elizabeth belong. Hilly is so virulently racist that she is spearheading an initiative to educate the good white folks of Jackson about the dangers of sharing toilets with black people because “they carry different diseases than we do.” She is also so hypocritical that, while actively oppressing the black people of her own community, she is simultaneously organizing a charity fund-raiser to help starving African children. After Hilly fires Minny for daring to use her indoor bathroom during a vicious rainstorm, Minny goes to work for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the only wealthy white woman in town who is excluded from Hilly’s social circle. Get it? Celia understands the plight of the African-American because she, too, is left out of the fancy dinners and such. This is about as subtle as the film gets.
Lest you get the wrong impression from the title and overall tone of this review, I did not hate The Help. It features a great cast (also including Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s far more likable mother) at the top of their game, and at 146 minutes it is still entertaining enough to breeze by in what feels like a much shorter amount of time. It is not really a bad movie, it’s just that it is too simplistic, too easy for a film about such a difficult subject. Like The Blind Side, The Help plays it safe, making sure at all times that the audience knows exactly how they are supposed to feel. Hilly is so comically villainous that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of fans bringing rotten fruit to throw at the screen on their second or third viewings; in fact, it often seems like the other women in her social circle have become racists against their better judgment, solely to please her. Seriously, if shown to an alien or a small child with no knowledge of American history, this film would give the impression that one haughty woman was responsible for all the racism of the Southern U.S. in the 1960s.
So what we have here is an engaging diversion, a film about a weighty and troublesome subject that is till safe and wholesome enough for the whole family. It panders so carefully that it can be enjoyed by anyone from eight to 80, all the while holding our hands and ensuring that we hate the character we’re supposed to hate, so that we can laugh and cheer at her eventual comeuppance. To its credit, the film doesn’t end on an entirely upbeat note, and at least acknowledges that the struggle for equality is not over just because of one anonymously published bestseller; on the other hand, to its detriment, The Help is rarely less obvious than a small child telling Aibileen, “You’re my real Mommy,” as her biological mother drives away to go to a social function with Hilly. It is a film that hits all the proper notes and manipulates all the right emotions, but is ultimately rather slight and forgettable.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.