‘The Help’: A movie about a white woman who told the story of the suffering of black women

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Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in The Help. ()
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“But we ain’t doing civil rights here,” protests Aibileen, an African-American maid in Tate Taylor’s The Help, based on the New York Times bestseller of the same name by Kathryn Stockett.

The “here” Aibileen refers to is the project initiated by “Skeeter,” a white lady (played by Emma Stone), to tell the stories of the domestic help from the maids’ perspective and publish them in book form.

“Nobody ever asked Mammy in Gone With the Wind how she felt about it,” says Skeeter.

But this is Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Jackson was a flashpoint for the civil rights movement. It was a dangerous and violent place. Medger Evers was murdered in Jackson.

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The untold stories of black womens’ experience in service to white women are most definitely part of the narrative of civil rights in America. But The Help is ultimately less about those demeaned black servants than it is about their white sympathizers, in a way that comes dangerously close to missing the point entirely.

The civil rights movement was complex and vast and included white heroes as well as black ones. And obviously, if you portray all whites as villains and racists, then you’re not presenting a full or accurate picture. But if you make a movie about Jim Crow that is all about white people saving black people, and that movie has a happy ending, then you are being reductive, and you are downplaying the idea that African-Americans had any agency in their own destinies. You are, as was the case with the creators of the movie version of The Help, co-opting the black experience.

Adapted for the screen by actor-director Tate Taylor, The Help moves predictably through the events familiar to people who read and loved the book.

Aibileen (played by the magnificent Viola Davis) has raised “seventeen white children," and now works for Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly). Elizabeth Leefolt has a chubby wild-child named Mae Mobley, being raised primarily by Aibileen, because Elizabeth can barely stand to look at her.

Minny (Octavia Spencer) is unable to hold down a job as a maid because of her “sass mouth." She finally gets a job working for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), an incompetent sexpot housewife, who hires her mainly because she needs a friend and also someone who can teach her how to cook.

Skeeter is home from college, living on her parents’ huge cotton plantation and trying to find a job, despite the horror of her terminally ill mother (Allison Janney), who wants her daughter to straighten her hair and find a man, stat. Even though Skeeter is seemingly an outsider with her old crowd, she still plays bridge with them, and edits the newsletter for the Women’s League. An editor in New York (Mary Steenburgen) tells her to write about things that bother her, and slowly, as Skeeter looks around her at the anonymous black maids in every house, she gets the idea to interview maids about their experience working for white women.

Naturally, the maids she approaches initially say hell no, lady. Aibileen and Minny are the first to agree, and others follow. The Medger Evers murder puts the heat under their secret project, but the outer world of the civil rights fight has very little place here in this domestic hothouse. In a way, this is an interesting angle on well-known events. Men dominated the political sphere, and women dominated at home. Men are nearly nonexistent in The Help, either ineffective nonentities or violent brutes.

While civil rights activists are fighting on a national scale, the white ladies of Jackson start a campaign to get every house equipped with a separate bathroom for "the help." Spearheaded by the soulless Hilly (in a breakout performance by Bryce Dallas Howard), the women begin gathering their forces to relegate the help to outhouses where they belong. The obsession with shit is one of the underlying themes of The Help, which also comes into play with the “Terrible Awful” trick that Minny pulls on Hilly as revenge for losing her job. Hilly, an immaculate and yet ridiculous person, with little pink bows pasted onto her giant beehives, is seething with repressed and angry bowel movements, basically, and so she spews her racist shit onto everybody in her path. Skeeter and Hilly were once friends, which I suppose explains why Skeeter still hangs out with such a hideous human being, but it doesn’t explain it enough. Skeeter is shown repeatedly as an independent quirky young woman with a mind of her own. Surely she can see that her friends are vile.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have apparently been subjected to some criticism for playing maids in this day and age, but that seems an unnecessarily blinkered view, not only of Hollywood and its opportunities (or lack thereof) for African-American actresses, but of acting careers in general. A good role doesn’t come along that often, and, as Oscar-nominated Viola Davis told EW, “I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.”

As Aibileen, the glowing Viola Davis is the heart of the movie. Although the character rarely lets herself be expressive, when her true feelings come out it is with the power of a massive flood. Her joy at little Mae Mobley’s success at toilet training is both tragic and hilarious, showing the sincere love that these maids had for their young charges, but also the inherent unfairness in their situation. Davis was right to take the risk and play Aibileen. She knows a great part when she sees one.

Octavia Spencer, as the hard-assed Minny, provides much of the humor in the film. When her white employer, Celia Foote, wonders why none of the other ladies in town like her, Minny says in a blunt yet somehow comforting tone, “They don’t like you because you white trash, Miss Celia.”

Minny’s husband is a drunk and abusive man, and Spencer, with her ferocious face, is heartbreaking in her stoic toughness in enduring the hardships of her life.

Emma Stone is an actress with a bright future. Anyone who saw her in 2010’s Easy A would have immediately recognized a star in the making. As Skeeter, she does a fine job, although the movie doesn’t serve her well. There is a romantic sub-plot that has nothing to do with anything and ends up feeling like a sop to the white audiences who want to see a love story. In the book, that romance is developed and has a storyline of its own, and didn’t strike me as superfluous as it does in the movie.

While Hilly is obviously the villain of the piece, Howard manages to pour so much subtlety into her performance, barely speaking above a simpering whisper, that the villainy starts to seem almost otherworldly. She has the eyes of a cobra. They never change expression. Howard is a total revelation in this part, and has never before had a role where she could really show what she could do. Hilly is it.

In The Tree of Life, newcomer Jessica Chastain showed an almost primal energy, pulsing with life, in her nearly-wordless part as the mother. She is completely different in The Help, as Celia Foote, the bodacious housewife disliked by all the women in town due to her sex appeal. The shunning of Celia Foote is supposed to echo the economic and social isolation suffered by the African-Americans, and while that is a condescending comparison to say the least (Celia is, after all, white, with all of the privileges that that confers), Chastain brings a brittle fragile quality to Celia that makes you worry for her, and the scenes between Chastain and Spencer are the highlights of the film.

Two grande dames of American cinema, Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson, appear in small roles, Spacek as Hilly’s mother on the verge of dementia, and Tyson as Constantine, Skeeter’s beloved maid growing up who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Spacek’s loopy anger as Missus Walters is a delight, with careless throwaway lines that are both devastating and right on target, and Tyson brings the gravitas of her entire life experience to her small role. She enters the screen, and something else starts happening, something real, something that Hollywood cannot market, “fix," ruin, or imitate. As Constantine, Tyson wears long braids, and false teeth, and a faraway look in her eyes, and her brief performance is a reminder of her genius.

A white author writing in a black vernacular is risky territory, but Kathryn Stockett's book is a sprawling page-turner that ends on an ambiguous note. The maids succeed in getting their voices heard, but there is a sense that even harder times are coming for them, which is in fact the case.

This ambiguity is lost in the movie, which wants to be a serious examination of racism during a certain period in America and also wants to be an uplifting, heartwarming drama. Well, you can't have it both ways.

A couple of cathartic confrontations have been added for the movie (one between Aibileen and Hilly, and one between Skeeter's mother and Hilly), and these confrontations show the knee-jerk desire of the filmmaker to give Hilly her comeuppance, as though the story's comound injustices can be made right through the humiliation of one bad woman. Audiences may cheer at those confrontations, but the satisfactions they provide are shallow ones. A bit more hard-edged cynicism might have been in order when tackling this material.

The Help means well, and features standout performances from all of the leads. But the swelling, triumphant music over the final frames of the movie grates.

A white lady writes a book that gets her a job in New York so she can leave Mississippi and follow her dream. Good for her. But what of the black ladies whose stories she told? What happens to them?