When dealing with race and the civil rights era, Hollywood is guilty of many sins. In Mississippi Burning, blacks were little more than props and corpses. Return of the Titans and Glory Road gave us treacle, with blacks ennobled and whites edified by the close quarters of the locker room, the baptism of sweat, and each race providing the other the lowdown on their versions of pop culture. Men of Honor presented Cuba Gooding Jr. not as a man, but as a superman, literally prepared to drown in order to establish his place. Ghosts of Mississippi was the story of Alec Baldwin’s dogged pursuit and Whoopie Goldberg’s shaming patience and little else. All of these movies were pat, uninvolving and blandly heart-stirring.
The depiction of ingrained societal racism in Conrack, the surprise of A Soldier’s Story or the depth of character of In the Heat of the Night is a rarity:
Even more rare are civil rights-era films that strike a fair balance between the protagonists yet still feel authentic. The Help continues the trend. A much lighter film than most of its ilk, ala’ Driving Ms. Daisy, most of the characters soon bust out of the broad and into the wildly cartoonish. Unsurprisingly, the center of the film is not really the help, but rather, the hysterical shrieking racist society queen Hily Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Hily is so odious as to appear sociopathic. But the film takes no chances, surrounding her with a coterie of henchwomen who fear her disapproval and endorse every initiative she proposes, including the creation of a separate household bathroom for the help of Jackson, Mississippi. Perhaps this was necessary because her character, literally, must be so vile as to deserve unknowingly eating sh**, but it doesn’t make for anything beyond grating when Hilly is not biting into that surprise of a pie.
We also have a newcomer to town, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). Celia is shunned by Hily because she’s of poorer West Virginia stock and she married Hily’s former beau. Celia is a character in the film solely to be ostracised, to wallow in it, and then, to be given strength by her sassy, powerful house maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who had also been abused by Hily. In Chastain’s big wet eyes of wonder, we see the dawning of racial understanding as she assesses her own station vis-a-vis Minny. The happy ending? Minny will be given a job for life, free use of any bathroom in the mansion, and, presumably, stock options. Both Chastain and Spencer give similar, over-the-top performances (Chastain’s suggests Priscilla Queen of the Desert; Spencer every sitcom housekeeper of the last 30 years). Both were nominated for best supporting actress. Spencer won.
But the true triumph of Minny and the rest of the help is the publishing of The Help, a book written anonymously by Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). The book exposes the secrets of Jackson’s households as provided by the maids who serve in them. At first, naturally, the maids are not interested in the project. But then Medgar Evers is shot and in a scene as inevitable as dawn, everybody signs up.
Stone is a terrible choice for this role. She’s an accomplished comedic actress, but she lacks any real depth – the best she can do is a screwed up face that is supposed to suggests emotion but looks more like a pre-sneeze.
Worse, we’re stuck with her uninvolving subplots, as the plight of the whites eventually takes precedence over the humdrum, silent suffering of their servant counterparts. Those trials include a deep, dark family secret — her mother (Allison Janney) ousted Skeeter’s childhood nanny (Cicely Tyson) in order to impress a local gaggle of racist women. The scene is provided in flashback and it is beyond ridiculous. Tyson is so humiliated you expect the women to start throwing cutlery at her for her menial offense. Add on Skeeter’s barely fleshed out love affair – her beau is standoffish, then smitten, then furniture, and then, he walks out after Skeeter is no longer anonymous for reasons unexplained. Granted, this has been deemed a woman’s picture, but I’m not sure the designation requires every male character to be shy of lobotomization. Regardless, Skeeter’s nonsense takes away from the film’s one good thing . . .
Viola Davis, who I first saw as the mother of a boy molested by a priest in Doubt. Davis was nominated for best supporting actress in Doubt though she appeared in just one scene, and what a scene it was (alas, she lost), and she was deservedly nominated for best actress in The Help, losing again to Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher. Her performance as the first of the maids to work with Skeeter is moving and nuanced. She rises above stereotype and really comes across as authentic, something not one other character in The Help manages. This scene is an example, where Davis confronts Hilly, showing both rage, confusion and ultimately, compassion:
Other than Davis, there’s little to recommend this movie, a disappointing follow-up by Tate Taylor to his stark and cool Winter’s Bone.