Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Help

"The Other Side of the Bridge Club (Insuring Domestic Tranquility)"
"You Ought Not to Joke About the Colored Situation"

You go into The Help with a certain amount of trepidation.  Will it be so politically correct as to have no bite?  Will it be a "TWGSTD" movie, where the true story of the oppresssed is supplanted by "the drama" of a privileged person's conscience to help?* Will it be a Neapolitan "Chick-Flick," all sugary ice cream of different flavors and colors?  We've seen plenty of those, and one would hope that we've evolved out of our tribalism enough that film-makers—even commercial film-makers—hedge their story by surrounding the center with white-washing vanilla.**

Stanley Kramer, after all, has been dead for ten years.

With The Help, it's a hesitant answer of "Yes" and "No."  "Yes," the story has elements of "White Guilt" saves the day, but only in the short term, and said Guilty Party, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (known as "Long-Haul" to her high school friends for actually attending and graduating college and pursuing a journalism "job," rather than settling for domestic tranquility) may have a sense of accomplishment, but it costs her.  And the issue of "You think you're gonna help us?" is very pointedly brought up by the character of Minny Jackson (played by her real-life inspiration, Octavia Spencer, in an excellent performance).  Say it, sister.  Nice touch of dignity, that. 

Young Miss "Skeeter" (Emma Stone), is ambitious, as are all the white women in the segregated community of Jackson, Mississippi; her ambitions don't center around who throws the nicest bridge club setting (or has it thrown for them), or making a name for herself preserving the traditions of The South.  She wants to be a journalist, which, given the times, relegates her to ghosting a "best-bleach-for-the-sheets" column for the local newspaper.  But, gnawing at her no. 2 pencil is what happened to the woman who raised her as a child.  No, not mother Charlotte (Allison Janney, who tends to periodically rise above her material), but the house-servant, Constantine Jefferson (the always wonderful Cicely Tyson—I've missed her), who accepted and applauded her graceless duckling ways in a city of debu-taunting swans, and who disappeared while she was away at college, never to return.  The vacancy of Constantine and her story inspires her to talk to the "help" about their stories, and how they maintain during their domestic servitude.  Fearing a backlash from amongst the womens' society, she initially only gets to talk to a reluctant Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, whose movie this is**), who tells her of her early days and of her family's molasses-like progress from house-"slaves" to house-"servants."

It involves the telling of tales on the pastel and flower-printed white woman she works for, a friend of "Skeeter's" (Anna Camp) and of the Red Queen of the Bridge set, Miss Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, a subtle, ethereal actress, allowed to go "broadly comic," which, as when Meryl Streep does it, is not pretty).*** Set about the time of the Medgar Evers murder, where any sort of racial consciousness-raising was cracked down upon by Jackson police and strict curfews enforced, The Help has a tendency to overlook the more serious event in the timeline of its narrative, veering more towards comedy in Tate Taylor's adaptation (Taylor is a lifelong friend of novelist Kathryn Stockett's and acquired the rights to her novel before publication), but there is enough genuine tension in scenes of servants trying to get home by curfew, that the plight of the women in the serving class, and the genuine danger they faced in up-braiding their employers, and the structure imposed on them, simmers under the surface.  Even in the face of somewhat trivially humiliating comeuppance, any sense of triumphant table-turning seems negligible against the long road to some sense of justice, however piddling (though entertainingly apt to provide a shit-eating grin) those small victories might be. 

As such, The Help, like those small victories, is a measured success.

(And I appreciated the handy list of uses for Crisco).

The Help is a Matinee.

* "The White Guy Saves The Day," ala "Robinson Crusoe," Dances with Wolves, Glory, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Mississippi Burning, The Last Samurai, Avatar, heck, even "Transformers"...

** The closest it comes to teetering over the edge is in a sub-plot of an ostracized Southern belle from the other side of the tracks (played by Jessica Chastain), who embodies a white version of Southern social stigma, and, in a reverse of the normal Hollywood strategy of "white moves first," is shown "the ropes" by one of "the help," an act that becomes mutually beneficial.

*** Octavia Spencer is a real "find" here and a shoo-in to get a Best Supporting Actress nomination come Oscar season, but I hope that Academy voters will also give a Best Actress nod to Davis, whose tremulous fire in her role would make it her second nomination in three years—her first being Doubt, in which her one-speech scene managed to outshine Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

**** As if this embarrassment of acting riches wasn't enough, Miss Hilly's mother is played by Sissy Spacek, who continues to play ordinary roles in a most extraordinary way.


John Gilpatrick said...

I pretty much agree with everything you say. Take the good, and try to forget the bad haha.

Also, you won a DVD or Blu-Ray for submitting the most articles to my Criterion Blogathon! So shoot me an email so we can make the arrangements (johnlikesmovies@gmail.com).

Yojimbo_5 said...


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Perhaps I'm being naive, but I never think of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as evidence of white-guilt. My issues with The Help are less about the white/black issue and more about general movie issues. I'll defend the film on the former aspect, because if we think race relations are to delicate to be humorous with then that's even more of a troubling existence. I will say, though, my main gripe was how broadly Bryce's character was painted ... as if only wholly mean women could be racist masterminds. But, all in all, it's a generally good, somewhat hokey, and a bit lazily structurally - but ah well. Chastain, Davis and Spencer are glorious to me.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Actually, we're in agreement on this—Howard's character is such a Cruella DeVille that one feels a bit like it's "piling on" on the part of the filmmakers, writers (and make-up artists) to make such a portrayal. And you're right, it would have been much more interesting and realistic to have her operating out of the shadows—even Klansmen wear hoods. It's just that at that point in history, so many people were proud to be racists and could rationalize their barabarous acts and attitudes as being some sort of societal imperative. That hasn't changed, really. Merely the focus.

As for Guess Who..., the fact that Tracy's character needs to make The Speech...AT ALL...smacks to me of white guilt, and the bright spot for me of the film (besides the performances) is that Poitier's parents have just as much opposition to the affair (and maybe more) than the Tracy-Hepburn couple. I like it when films break it down to tribalism—the me/not me syndrome—so that in the end, skin-shade, sex, nationality, neighborhood, language are not an excuse for irrationality: irrationality is. I always remember a line from some long-forgotten Robert Taylor western: "I don't hate in the plural."