The Help is the kind of movie about the Civil Rights Movement that mainstream white audiences love, because that complicated and difficult time is spoon fed to viewers with the kind of optimistic that lets people think that a) racial discrimination is over, a thing of the past and b) wow, weren’t those white people nasty, I’m glad I’m not like one of them. Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is yet another in a long line of movies about the Civil Rights Movement in which a white protagonist takes center stage. We get to see the horrors of Jim Crow as well as the glimmers of hope through progress from the POV of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who aspires to be a journalist.
And that’s The Help‘s first problem. If we need another Civil Rights Era narrative film, then why do we need another one the centers on the experiences of a white protagonist? In the film Skeeter is the liberal conscious of the film’s white liberal viewers. She treats the maids kindly and is contemptuous of her racist friends. Viewers are meant to watch the film through Skeeter’s eyes and feel smug, like she, that they are not like the bad white people who wreak some awful havoc on the lives of the black characters.
As a character, Skeeter acts merely as a refreshing antidote to the bigoted atmosphere created by the other white characters, namely Hilly Walters Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the leader of the society of young southern belles. She rules in her kingdom with a cruel fist, casting anyone whom she feels is deserving adrift into social isolation. Her treatment of her friends is terrible, but her treatment of the black women in the town is criminal. And because she’s so powerful (though the source of her power is ephemeral), her legion of housewives dutifully follow suit. All except Skeeter, who remains the white moral center of the film.
But because this is about the Civil Rights Movement, we also are privy to the lives of the black characters – but not nearly enough. When we focus on Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), then we have the kernel of a good film. Aibileen and Minny are best friends who support each other. And they need the support because they both work hard as maids: Aibileen for Elizabeth Leefoit (Ahna O’Reilly), a neglectful mother whose young daughter adores Aibileen; Minny, on the other hand, has trouble finding permanent employment because of her temper but eventually finds work with the town’s social pariah, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) – more on that later.
When Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are on screen, there’s some movie magic, namely due to the actress’ skills. The writing often lets them down: they’re tropes and little more, but the two women have a chemistry that transcends the limits of the film, and they create a beautiful friendship. I wish more of their lives together was explored because a film about how two women support and take care of each other during difficult times filled with social unrest would be an interesting one to watch. But we don’t get to sit and watch Davis and Spencer interact because the film is far more interesting in how white folks saw Civil Rights.
The plot has Skeeter cook up a dangerous scheme of documenting the lives of the maids in town. She convinces Aibileen and Minny to tell her their stories – unvarnished stories of subjugation, humiliation, and class stratification. The risk is huge – the women could lose their jobs, even be victims of violence. Of course, Skeeter’s risk is low and that’s another problem with the film – the stakes are so low for Skeeter that though she’s supposed to be seen as a brave and inspiring figure, she merely comes off as privileged and a little opportunistic. When Hilly gets a black woman falsely arrested for theft, the other maids in town convene at Aibileen’s house and agree to have their lives chronicled, in hopes of exposing just how gross a life of servitude can be. We’re gifted with the briefest of montages in which the maids speak, but again, the film is more interested in Skeeter’s growth and development, so we don’t understand, see, or hear the indignities that countless black women had to shoulder just to ensure a better life for their children. We don’t get a sense of the violence or violation. It’s all skimming at the surface, enough to have most decent people offended, but not enough to really examine just how dysfunctional this kind of society really is.
Screenwriter Tate Taylor must’ve had a notebook bursting with ideas, because along with the Skeeter plot, the Aibileen and Minny plot, we also get the Celia and Minny show. In what is clearly meant to be a show of “love knows no color,” The Help also includes a story line that has Minny working for Celia, a beautiful, yet blowsy housewife who cannot seem to do anything. Plagued with a series of miscarriages, Celia is a pathetic soul – gorgeous, but dim. Kind, but naive. The women in the town eye her warily because she wears low cut dresses and totters around on high heels, and is married to Hilly’s ex, so naturally, she’s labeled a maneater, and the women guard their husbands jealously anytime poor Celia stumbles into the scene.
Minny arrives and manages to shape things up, and predictably the two women overcome their racial, social, and economic differences to understand that they’re more alike than different. Minny becomes a surrogate big sister and mother to Celia because Tate Taylor doesn’t think there are enough black maids playing surrogate mothers to rich white women in film. The scenes between Minny and Celia all ring of treacle and feel contrived. Again, the only thing that elevates this to anything is the mighty work of Spencer as well as the beautifully-layered performance of Jessica Chastain, who channels a near-death Marilyn Monroe. Like her scenes with Davis, Spencer creates a solid bond with Chastain, though the writing is cliched with their scenes, that no amount of expert emoting manages to wrench their work free from the sap.
All of this happens with the Civil Rights Movement playing in the background. Taylor uses the events of the 1960s as a way to frame the story as well as to give the film some forward momentum. But little is done to engage with the event, nor do the characters have any meaningful connection to the events. When Medgar Evars is assassinated, we get a glimpse of what could’ve been. Aibilieen is ordered off a bus and fearfully flees in the night to get home. As a director Taylor crafted a solid sequence of scenes that end in Minny’s house. The two women grieve privately, shielding their young children from the brutal realities of the world, and whisper their fears to each other. For The Help to function as a serious film about these times, we need more of this, instead of a pouting Skeeter giving side eye to Hilly after the latter spouts off another string of racial expletives.
When The Help came out in 2011, it got some great reviews and made over $200 million in the box office. Spencer (deservedly) won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, while Chastain and Davis were nominated (and the film was up for Best Picture, for some reason). It’s understandable that the film mainly was praised for its actors but the performances are impeccable. That is one of the many frustrating things about the film – along with its tone-deaf approach to race relations and history, the film wastes a very talented cast.