The Help” could be a lot more thorny than it is, but as a tale of bigotry and racial prejudice set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, its contours are surprisingly smooth. It doesn’t have the high rage factor of, say, 1988′s “Mississippi Burning,” nor the intense, provocative drama of 1990′s “The Long Walk Home” — both landmark films that deal with race and the civil rights movement. Instead, “The Help” is quite palatable, and whatever sarcasm or irony director/writer Tate Taylor may have intended are done up in metaphorical candy wrappers, much like the skirts worn by its privileged white women characters.
“The Help” does, however, throw around ideas and nuggets of wisdom designed to lead the viewer off on a process of pondering. Its very title suggests the film is more of an aid or a guideline to start thinking, rather than something that will come out with a magic solution to make everything OK.
Besides, nothing is really OK, either in the story or the current reality we’re seeing some five decades after segregation laws in the southern United States were officially abolished. The median household income for the average white family in the U.S. is around 20 times that of a black family. In the movie, a black maid is asked why she chose her job, and she replies that her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave. For her, it was a matter of course to be “the help” in a white household. Did she ever want to do anything else? Yes, but no one had ever asked her that question.
Judging from a modern-day persepective, these questions have the unmistakable patina of patronization to which “The Help” is well attuned. Taylor, working from an original best-seller by Kathryn Stockett, is more than alert to the ambience of downright condescension in the relationship between black “helps” and their white employers, and turns up the dial at every opportunity.
Interestingly, protagonist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is the guiltiest perpetuator of this mindset. As a young university graduate, Skeeter starts off wanting to write about the lives of the black housemaids in her community. She plugs away at the reluctant women until they begin to talk. Skeeter is essentially fair and spunky and good. But a lifetime of privilege and plenty has left its mark, and Skeeter is a thick-skinned oaf when it comes to gauging the feelings of her interview subjects. She can sit there, calm and serene, and ask questions such as, “What does it feel like to raise a white child when your own child’s at home being looked after by somebody else?”
Stone is brilliant in portraying this particular brand of insensitivity, and the film’s intrinsic value rests on the incredible range of emotions and expressions turned in by the whole cast. Especially gratifying to watch (indeed, once her face is in the frame it’s impossible to tear your eyes away) is Viola Davis as housemaid Aibileen Clark, a role for which she was aptly nominated for the Best Actress Award at this year’s Oscars. Her supporting costar, Octavia Spencer, won an Oscar for her role as Aibileen’s gutsy colleague Minny.
Aibileen is smart and compassionate and, as they might say in the Southern tradition, she’s a woman who’s full of grace. Just the way she carries herself makes you think that if Aibileen were transported to the present day, she would at least be running her own company, or reforming the Medicare system.
But in 1963 Mississippi, Aibileen and the other women in her tightly knit and blatantly ghettoized black community go out to work in white women’s homes for chicken-feed pay. They raise white children; they clean and scrub and cook. And they’re told not to use the toilets in the house (that they polish to a gleaming whiteness) because that would be “unsanitary.”
In the meantime, the maids’ employers hold tea and cocktail parties and do the social climbing thing. The little girls of these awful women declare that the black maids are like their real mothers as soon as their biological moms are out of earshot. Sadly, they grow up into made-up, done-up, bigoted witches, represented here by the town nightmare she-racist Hilly Holbrook (an excellent Bryce Dallas Howard).
“The Help” weaves classy entertainment from a downright downer of subject matter. Perhaps it turns out more feel-good than one would hope, under the circumstances. And it ultimately fails to address the politics of domestic labor, and how in the developed world it still symbolizes servitude and degradation, especially among the white-collar class. In one scene, Aibileen croons that her young charge is “important and special,” which you could interpret: “You will never have to scrub toilets or wash dishes.”
Which means, of course, that someone else has to do it for her.