Given all of the kerfluffle surrounding The Help (dir. Tate Taylor) these past few weeks (it’s racist! it’s Oscar-worthy! etc.) I went into it feeling a little grim. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while problematic in spots, it’s not the Song-of-the-South-redux that its critics have made it out to be. To be sure, the film is not a comprehensive account of the Jim Crow era (nor does it try to be—the idea here, which should be well familiar to feminist and race scholars, is that history is often made up of the seemingly mundane experiences of ordinary people). Being that it is set in 1960s Mississippi, its black female characters are also not high-powered attorneys or computer scientists (nor is that something that the film should have to apologize for). Whatever else one wants to say about The Help, it is a well-intentioned film that tries its darndest—sometimes too self-congratulatorily—to give voice to the impoverished black women who cleaned white homes for generations in the South in the early twentieth century (“No one ever asked Mammy what she thought,” one of the main characters articulates). The end product is wildly uneven and at times misguided, a mix of Lifetime-movie clichés, gross-out comedy gags, and sparkling performances. But, for all its faults, it’s one of the few Hollywood movies of recent years to even pay any sustained attention to black female characters or to let actresses like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer show off their chops. As Stephanie Zacharek writes in her eminently sane review, the performances here are so good that it doesn’t seem worthwhile to wish that the movie itself was a different one.
The plot, as many know, concerns a white budding journalist named Skeeter (Emma Stone) who endeavors to sit down with the omnipresent but largely ignored black maids who work in the homes of her affluent Mississippi social set. Two of these women are the quietly long-suffering Aibileen and the sassy, spirited Minny (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both excellent), who reluctantly agree to talk to Skeeter about their cruel employers, miserable wages and personal traumas. The film is in keeping with a long cultural tradition of “women’s” novels and films (Uncle Tom’s Cabin being the prototypical example) that use sentimentality and melodrama to address racial issues, in which tears become a kind of lubricant for cross-racial solidarity and compassion. As such, the emotions are big and the characters—black and white alike—are broadly drawn, but they are humanized and deepened by the cast, right down to Jessica Chastain, who brings a soft, vulnerable charm to her role as a blowsy petty-bourgeoise.
Roger Ebert has said to evaluate the film you saw, not the film you wish you saw. In The Help, I saw Davis, Spencer, Stone, and Chastain breathe life into characters that could have been caricatures. I’m content to appreciate those performances rather than dwelling on the fact that they deserve to inhabit a better film.