The Help (review)

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Viola Davis in The Help

The Cinematic Situation

There are the movie-movie pleasures of The Help, the stuff of simple cinematic entertainment, the stuff we go to the movies for. The magnificent performances. The fresh narrative we haven’t seen ten thousand times before. The unsentimental direction that lets you feel your own emotions instead of having them dictated to you. Honestly, these aren’t things that are all that hard to do, and yet their rarity — particularly found all together all in one film! — means we should cheer all the harder when we do find them… and we should be sure to see them, too: See this movie! As plain and straightforward, Hollywood glossy storytelling-for-your-enjoyment goes, The Help is a breathtaking success.

But there are other things at play, too: the politics of Hollywood, in which race and gender aren’t a factor unless the race isn’t white and the gender isn’t male. Then a story must be ghettoized, shuffled aside, considered to not really “count.” It’s “only” about women. It’s “only” about black people. Fuck. That. Shit. The Help says, “Fuck that shit,” too. The story it has to tell does happen to feature white women and black women, and nary a man in sight, but the feeling it wants to leave you with is universal. It’s hard to be brave, to buck convention and to defy your peers. Paranoia and bigotry aren’t logical. Culture — local and at large — can be toxic. Everyone is a product of their circumstances, it’s what you do with yourself that matters. Blah blah blah. I don’t mean to put down those messages — those are good messages. But there’s nothing of the chick-flick ghetto about this movie. If movies that’re all men and no women can be universal, so can this one. This is The Shawshank Redemption.

The crushing institutionalization here is racism, and it is brutal. It’s almost hard to believe that people actually lived as we see here: never mind “silver polishing day,” the disdain for anyone of less than a pale peachy skin tone is so accepted that human beings insult other human beings to their faces in horrific ways, while also taking such overt advantage of them. While also giving those deemed less than human such intimate access to their lives. Surely Hilly Holbrook, the belle of early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, will go down as one of the great cinematic villains — Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) has a ball with her wickedness — a woman who can proudly announce that she has drafted legislation that requires white homes to have separate bathrooms for the black help. She cannot abide setting her delicate hinder on a toilet seat that a black butt has touched, you see. Diseases. Germs. Who knows what else? Yet she willingly, even happily, eats food cooked by Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer [Dinner for Schmucks, The Soloist], showing off wonderful dramatic chops after mostly being a comedic actor), the black maid who works for her. “Mean for sport,” she bullies her friend Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly: Forgetting Sarah Marshall) into installing a separate toilet for her maid, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis [It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Trust], so exquisite it makes me want to cry for joy), yet Elizabeth leaves her children for the maid to raise. How could anyone leave their beloved children with someone they believe to be diseased and dangerous?

The hypocrisy of these women, which they seem incapable of recognizing in themselves, is shocking yet not at all implausible. It’s horrific in a different way, too, because it becomes a symbol of how constrained the white women are as well by their culture. Children aren’t beloved; they’re nothing but status symbols. Acceptance by queen bees such as Hilly Holbrook is a must if one is to “thrive,” if only in tightly limited ways, in this enviroment. Ostracization is a nightmare, as we see via Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain: The Tree of Life), who crossed that queen bee and now is excluded from what little society Jackson has to offer.

There’s no excusing these women their cruelty and their bigotry; there’s just a context for it. And it’s a context for women’s lives that isn’t often explored on film: it may look easy to be a wealthy housewife, but it’s not a satisfying life, and it’s one that can channel the human energy of women into narrow places where it isn’t most productively utilized. And as The Help — based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — peels back this unexpected film from the lives of wealthy white women, it does the same thing — both within the movie, for the characters here, and without it, for the viewer — for the poor black women, when Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone [Easy A, Zombieland], on fire with indignation and rage) returns home from college, eager to be a journalist, and gives herself the task of interviewing the maids to get their perspective on their lives and the indignities they are subjected to.

The stories we hear from Aibileen and Minny and others aren’t surprising, in many ways — of course it stings to be treated as less than human; of course it’s awful to be away from your own children while you raise someone else’s. But what’s notable about them is that their stories are being told, and heard, at all. Not just in the racist 1960s South. But in the supposedly more enlightened 21st century, too. There isn’t a note of self-congratulation to The Help because there can’t be: writer-director Tate Taylor (who is, ahem, a white man) knows that we still have a long way to go when it comes to valuing the stories of anyone not white and male. And that that’s not the way things should be.

Watch THe Help online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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