One of the most frustrating habits of well-meaning Hollywood over the years has been the tendency to create movies about how white people have heroically helped one minority after another. If you only know the history of race relations from movies, it would seem that most major changes in the condition of how we live together have resulted from noble, selfless white folks who have decided to take mercy on the “lesser” races. That disturbing cultural lie is the reason I have a problem with a number of films. like “Cry Freedom” or “Mississippi Burning,” movies that contain good work on important subjects, but that are hobbled by this need to have a white face at the center of things.
For Tate Taylor, the screenwriter and director of “The Help,” this history of dishonesty is working against him before the film even begins, and I’m happy to admit that I walked in, arms crossed, ready to dismiss the movie. I didn’t read Kathryn Stockett’s novel, but I’m aware of how big a hit it was, and I expected something that was all feel-good surfaces and white guilt. Instead, Taylor deserves real credit for what he’s done, avoiding many of the easy traps of the genre, and I walked away impressed by just how solid and sincere “The Help” really is. This is a case where the dynamic between the white and black characters informs the premise of the film, and they gain strength and courage from each other. This is no one-way transaction. Instead, it’s a cross-class portrait of Southern women of a certain era, and the dawning of new respect between them, and it packs a heck of a punch.
Emma Stone, newly and welcomely ubiquitous this year, stars as “Skeeter” Phelan, freshly graduated from college and ready to join the work force. She wants to be a writer, and when she manages to get her first job, we see just how much value people place on her. She’s given a job ghost-writing a home cleaning advice column. Even though she’s trained, there’s no way she gets a job as a real journalist right away. Most of the young women her age in Jackson, Mississippi are looking for a husband, and there’s an expectation that Skeeter is just marking time until she can get married. The only one who doesn’t think that way is Skeeter herself, and she’s determined to find something worth writing about, a story worth telling.
Skeeter isn’t the one telling us the story, though, which is the first indication that this isn’t exactly the film I thought it was going to be. Instead, the story is told by Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who serves as the maid to Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), one of several young women who are Skeeter’s peers. All of them were raised by the maids in their own houses, and one of the things that underscores the whole film is that strange incongruity that you could share such an intimate, nurturing relationship with someone for your early years, only to turn around and assume a supervisory role over that same person once you’re older. When Skeeter gets home from school, she finds that her mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) fired the maid that Skeeter grew up with, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), and no one will tell Skeeter what happened. That question, along with the terrible behavior that Skeeter starts to witness from Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), head of the Junior Auxilary, as well as the other girls she grew up with, is what prompts Skeeter to start asking questions of the maids for the first time.
This is a big ensemble, and one of the things that I’m impressed by is the way Taylor juggles these big personalities and never lets anyone overpower the film. The two main maids in the movie are Aibileen and Minny Jackson, played by Octavia Spencer, and for both of them, this is a showcase. “The maid” is one of those archetypes that has been a prison for whole generations of black performers, a background role with no opportunity to shine. One of the joys of this film is watching Davis and Spencer round these women out, little by little, each new revelation adding a dimension to the characters. We go through the same process that Skeeter does, seeing these women come to full life for the first time, and both Davis and Spencer take real pleasure in their parts. They don’t oversell this very volatile material, realizing that they gain more from playing it natural and real, and as a result, the movie doesn’t have to reach for the very real tears that it earns along the way.
Bryce Dallas Howard seems to be carving out a new career for herself playing vaguely unlikeable characters, and she offers up a memorable jerk in the form of Hilly Holbrook, exercising whatever power she has over people, revealing the painful insecurity that drives Hilly. Even better is Jessica Chastain, whose performance as Celia Foote is just plain great. Celia is the new girl in town, married to local Johnny Foote, and because Hilly used to date Johnny, Celia is dead on arrival, the butt of every joke, snubbed at every event. Nobody has the guts to be friends with her for fear of infuriating Hilly, and as a result, Celia is starting to fall apart behind closed doors. When Hilly fires Minny, the only person who feels safe hiring her is Celia, and many of my favorite moments in the film involve Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. I found it hard to really judge Chastain’s ability one way or another based on “The Tree Of Life” because she plays such a phantom in that movie, an idea more than a character, an idealized and nearly-silent memory of “Mother.” In this film, Chastain is given something fun to play, and she tears into it. She is adorable at times, hilarious at times, and genuinely heartbreaking in places, and she makes it look like she’s been doing this forever. It’s the sort of performance that would kick off a frenzy of new roles for her if she wasn’t already appearing in everything that comes out for the next six months.
Emma Stone is very effective in the lead, but that’s sort of a trick because her character is perhaps the most passive in the lead. She’s the observer, the one who is collecting these stories of strength from women who have lived their lives in harm’s way, and while she does have an arc in the film, it’s far less drastic than the ones some of the other characters enjoy. She’s exactly the right sort of casting for this, someone who can give personality to this character even when she’s basically just a sounding board for what the other characters are going through. Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek and Cicley Tyson all get moments to shine in their small-but-significant roles, and tech credits are solid across the board. Thomas Newman’s score is rousing and emotional, and Stephen Goldblatt gives a gold-burnished hue to this dawn of the New South.
I grew up in the South, and my parents are both from Memphis, Tennessee. My grandmothers were both very much relics of their era, and one of the memories that defines the way I feel about them, unfortunately, is the way race language kept us apart. I’m a product of the Sesame Street generation, raised not to notice race, not to think of it as a difference, but simply one of the many things that make us who we are, and they were people who had grown up in a time before civil rights, when separate but equal was a way of life, and they had no problem using words that would make me deeply uncomfortable. I vividly remember one night, listening to one grandmother rant about how it was always “nigra faces” that showed up on the news, and it just finally got to be too much for me. In some way, her using the word “nigra” seemed like this disturbing compromise, revealing the mindset behind it while giving a half-hearted nod towards changing standards, and I finally couldn’t take it. I erupted at her, furious at being made to feel that way, furious at her for not changing with the world around her. And while her language may have changed after that, the truth is that we were simply from different worlds, raised in such different ways that we never really made any significant peace over the issue. She was who she was, and I wasn’t going to change her mind or her heart. “The Help” deals with the era where my parents, the bridge between my racial acceptance and my grandmother’s racial difficulties, came of age and had to figure out how to live in this shifting landscape, and these wounds are fresh enough and universal enough that I think “The Help” earns the right to grapple with these ideas. This film acknowledges that the real heroes of that era were the ones with the most to lose, and it does so without condescending. We like to believe that we’ve moved on, and that there’s no need for a film like this in a post-Obama world, but the truth is that class and race are still barriers for many people, and a story like this offers lessons in self-respect that are timeless.
“The Help” opens everywhere this Friday.