As a teen, I remember seeing Sarafina! with my mom and reading her the riot act afterward — naively assuming that the racist policies of another nation were somehow within her control. It's easy to think of discriminatory situations in terms of absolutes, and it's even easier to be angry in hindsight at the previous generation. That's the mentality that drives a lot of films about racial issues, and the veil that lets contemporary audiences get away with not examining their own.
Before we get to that, any discussion of writer-director Tate Taylor's movie version of The Help must begin with an acknowledgment: As Aibileen, a long-suffering maid in 1960s Mississippi who leads her fellow housekeepers to expose their racist treatment, Viola Davis is nothing short of extraordinary — the latest in a long tradition of black actors who burst the confines of the roles they're given. She is tender, caring and necessarily guarded, but also a force of such strength that she overshadows the characterizations surrounding her. That's even with Cicely Tyson appearing for all of five minutes, just long enough to break your heart, and a cast studded with other large contributions in small parts.
Yet anytime Hollywood wants to make a film about race relations, it's almost always a period piece — it's always set during the civil rights era, and it's always about noble black people who suffer in quiet dignity until some well-meaning white folks come to the rescue. So to that extent, The Help is more of the same. It will let contemporary Southerners feel better that this isn't the Jim Crow South, where appalling humanitarian and labor-law violations held for much of the century. It will let white people feel better about themselves for agreeing that they would never have treated black people that way. It will let black people take a small degree of solace in the progress we've made as a nation, and that a lot of talented black performers have the chance to star in a big-budget film.
But there's not a challenge being made. Hollywood doesn't want to alienate anyone, and that's one reason films dealing with racial issues invariably focus on decent-hearted white people who stand up to prevailing racist signifiers. To The Help's credit, that's not the whole story. The character of Minny Jackson (the scene-stealing Octavia Spencer) spends most of the film as comic relief, serving up sass or fried chicken to leaven the proceedings when necessary. But she is allowed one devastating moment to vent the rage she keeps locked up tight. That's Hollywood Movie Math — for all the clowning and cooking she endures, she is granted exactly one electrifying moment of getting real.
The white characters get even fewer dimensions. As the villain of the piece — Miss Hilly, a hateful and venomous bridge-club bully — Bryce Dallas Howard shows that between this and her work in Lars Von Trier's Manderlay, she is more than willing to be part of a discussion on racial issues. But she makes a villain of such deliberate cruelty that she almost throws the film off its axis. Although she clearly relishes the role, her performance only deflects the self-scrutiny of contemporary audiences. Who could possibly see themselves in her? She's the evil queen to the film's Snow White: its (white) heroine Skeeter Phelan, who as underplayed by Emma Stone invites white audiences to see themselves in her idealized surface.
That said, there are still some surprises, chiefly Jessica Chastain's Celia Foote — the character who least fits any type, neither a righteous crusader, a racist harridan, nor any of the movie's other established barometers of whiteness. She's a lonely woman who needs a friend and takes joy in learning from and hanging out with Minny. Is she still "the boss?" Yes. But is she the most interesting character in terms of how she relates to race? You better believe it. Chastain and Spencer are exceptional together, and of all the film's climaxes (there are four or five), theirs is the most enjoyable. The film's final shot, though, like the film as a whole, belongs to Davis.
Even so, there's one moment in the film that sticks out. After the desperate Yule Mae (Aunjanue Ellis) is arrested and beaten by police, the black housekeepers of Jackson, Miss., gather at Aibileen's house. We see it from Skeeter's point of view, but this gathering of women, with common purpose and minds made up, recalls the moment in Toni Morrison's Beloved when the women gather and focus their power. It's just an echo, but a moment of visceral power nonetheless.
Otherwise, The Help is a film that will give you what you expect. So expect something more. Complacency is a sign of weakness, and nostalgia can be pernicious.
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