Monday, September 5, 2011
Labor Day: The Help Reviewed
As for the possibly-racist intentions of The Help, well, that has a pretty simple answer too.
Skeeter (Stone) comes home to Jackson, Miss. from college with eyes on becoming a serious journalist; what she gets is a ghost-written Miss Myrna advice column on how to clean houses. Stumped for answers, she enlists Aibileen (Davis), who provides her with helpful advice (crushed egg shells remove stains!) as well as the impetus for what will become her cause célèbre: writing a book that details the struggle of the film's titular "help."
From there, Aibileen must contend with standing up for what is right in the face of overwhelming odds (in this case, the racist South during the turbulent Civil Rights era) with little initial support beyond the ambitious Skeeter and fellow maid Minny (Octavia Spencer). Overcoming those odds and learning the value of accepting thy enemy for who they are (Bryce Dallas Howard as the Queen C-bomb of entitled Southern racists) await Aibileen, a foot soldier in the battle for racial equality.
There's nothing worse than entering a debate without perspective (just ask Donny), but based on what transpires on screen, The Help is not built upon the idea that a white girl set the black maids free. (Whether or not the film delights in stereotypes and Stepin Fetchit dialogue is another matter entirely.) Skeeter offers Aibileen the tools to get the message out, but works mostly as a stenographer; her job is to write down what the maids tell her about their lives, both good and bad. If The Help took place in 2011, Skeeter would basically be an Internet connection. Only a silly and shoe-horned bit of personal experience with her own maid gives Skeeter anything resembling a voice in the finished book; this is the story of Aibileen, of Minnie, of the maids. These women don't need saviors beyond themselves, least of all a fresh-out-of-college cub reporter, even one as progressive and smart as Skeeter.
That's not to say there aren't issues here — the "authentic" '60s dialect feels a bit jarring coming from such intelligent females as Davis and Spencer — but mostly The Help succeeds as a strong women's film; as far as I could tell, five men had speaking parts (six if you count television footage of Medger Evers). Davis and Spencer own their roles and the screen; both will get nominated for Oscars, and both could easily win. Spencer, especially, is brilliant, even amid her character's inherent stereotypes. She makes Minny defiant, sass-mouthed, hilarious and heartbreaking. Stone is more than serviceable as the maid conduit, but the stand-out among the supporting wives of Jackson belongs to Jessica Chastain. The It-Girl of 2011 is barely recognizable in a push-up bra and bleached blond hair as a trophy wife in the mold of Marilyn Monroe. She has the demeanor of a child at first, but outside of Skeeter, she's one of the kindest and most progressive women in the film. It's a truly special performance for a character that could have ultimately been one-joke.
Poor Bryce Dallas Howard doesn't fare as well, though it isn't necessarily her fault. If there is a blind spot with The Help, it's that the broad screenplay doesn't properly dispose of its villain, nor give her a reckoning. As the face of Hate (capital intended), Howard's character is like a female Fred Phelps, hammering away on racist positions that even seem grotesque in the discriminating milieu of Jackson. (She thinks the help should have their own bathrooms, lest they bring "diseases" into the house.) Howard's Hilly is a screenwriting monster: a character with no redeeming qualities, no redemption arc, and no comeuppance. Granted, the only acceptable comeuppance for Hilly would have been an anvil dropped on her head (and that anvil promptly exploding), but still: even the warden in The Shawshank Redemption got his just desserts; Hilly literally eats shit and it isn't enough.
Still, that quibble and some others aside, this is a fairly assured bit of mainstream drama. (First-time director Tate Taylor makes sure The Help is sturdy and respectable, a worthy screen companion to his friend Kathryn Stockett's beloved source novel.) Like the maids at the center of the story — the ones who clean toilets, change diapers and keep society running during that era of upheaval — the accomplishments of the finished film are yeomanly. In the end, that's more than enough. After all, no one is really expected to eat a five-course meal off a freshly waxed floor.