Let’s start with just talking about The Help as a movie. It translated well to screen, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular book by writer/direcotr Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People). I wasn’t a huge fan of the book—not only did it not live up to the hype but I found it kind of offensive—but the movie was a more enjoyable experience to me. This story definitely worked better with the benefit of a top-notch cast. Like X-Men: First Class before it, The Help is a study in how good actors can elevate mediocre material. The Help is about twenty minutes too long and parts of it drag, giving it some awkward pacing issues. The movie worked better and was more interesting when it focused on the home lives of Aibilene (Viola Davis, Doubt, in a performance sure to be in the mix come Oscar season) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer, Peep World, in a breakout role). I could’ve used more Aibilene and Minnie at home and less Skeeter going on dates.
Speaking of Skeeter, Emma Stone delivers a solid if not mind-blowing performance as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the young journalist who begins compiling the stories of black maids in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. Stone shows she can capably handle a weighty role like this, but it isn’t a chameleonic performance. That’s definitely still Emma Stone, but she’s effective and likeable as Skeeter. All around, the acting in The Help is really, really good. Besides Davis, Spencer and Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Allison Janney (The West Wing), Sissy Spacek and Ahna O’Reilly (most famous for being James Franco’s ex) fill out the ensemble. Chastain is particularly good as Celia Foote, a tacky trophy wife. She hires Minnie after Hilly Holbrook (Howard), queen of the Junior League, has blacklisted her from the homes of Jackson. Celia and Minnie develop an interesting relationship, more friendly than Minnie is comfortable with, and their plotline pays off in a moving scene when Celia suffers a miscarriage. Everything that worked in The Help worked because of these actresses delivering strong performances. I didn’t dislike The Help and that’s solely down to the quality of the acting.
Still, The Help has some problems, and they’re all carry-overs from the book. The racial politics at play are troubling at best. Here’s what bugs me about The Help: The segregated South and the Civil Rights Era are incredibly complicated histories which have no neat and tidy ending. So what does it mean that The Help attempts to resolve those things with a neat and tidy ending? I don’t begrudge Stockett and Taylor wanting to tell an uplifting story—and The Help as a movie can be taken as an uplifting story—but I wonder about telling THIS story in THAT way. To me, it feels like trying to solve a couple hundred years of racial tension in two hours, which is cheap and not possible. It’s like—look at Skeeter, she’s so well-meaning she’s going to help these poor black women better themselves! And the maids are going to pass their down-home wisdom on to their clueless white employers! And everyone is better off! And we’re all friends now! If you simply don’t ask yourself any questions, if you just watch the movie and don’t second-guess anyone’s intentions, The Help will make you feel good. It is a positive message. There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself.
But is there something wrong with NOT asking those questions? Because what does The Help tell us really? That it takes a privileged white woman to effect change. It’s a gross over-simplification of an incredibly complex subject, and it’s offensive to take agency away from the African-American characters like that. If you’re capable of shutting off that part of your brain, enjoy, but I couldn’t and I felt the movie suffered for it. I was borderline uncomfortable throughout because of the representation of these characters. Again, the actresses do a helluva job overcoming this, but they can’t quite clear the hurdle. Hilly is so awful, such a caricature, that of course no one in the audience is going to identify with her. The thing that makes this history so complex is that all this awful stuff was carried out by normal people. Of course there are Hillys in the world. There are people who are “mean for sport”, as one character calls it. But the reason Jim Crow was allowed to continue as long as it did is because a lot of otherwise nice people simply did nothing. This was institutional racism that pervaded generations. My granny was a wonderful woman and I loved her very much but she had some ideas I could not reconcile. Born in 1914, raised in rural Texas—you can imagine what she thought about certain subjects. She wasn’t a bad person but she was fundamentally wrong. It’s the dark blot on the Greatest Generation. They were just. Plain. Wrong.
So The Help’s cotton-candy approach to this is to suggest that all this bad stuff came from villainous cartoons like Hilly when really, it was normal people like my Granny. It was EVERYONE. It was an endemic cancer and no one escaped it. I give The Help some credit for trying to create more agency for the black maids (they really emphasize that without the maid’s cooperation Skeeter can’t write her book), but they don’t go far enough. There are moments where you see the ongoing nature of the strife, especially at the end when Aibilene is fired and must leave her young white charge, Mae Mobley. The child is genuinely upset—Aibilene is more her mother than her actual mother, which is the same circumstance we see with Skeeter and her one-time nanny/maid. But we also see that Mae Mobley’s mother, Elizabeth (O’Reilly), is coming to realize she is going to have to raise her own children and that her treatment of Aibilene hasn’t been right. I’m not sure that moment would ever really come for a real-world Elizabeth. She’s my Granny—she never changed her mind. She just stopped sharing her opinions out loud because she knew it wasn’t acceptable anymore.
The Help wants us to feel good. It wants us to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come. But I’m not sure we should feel good and I don’t know that we have actually come that far. This history can’t be whitewashed. This isn’t a story I’m sure deserves a happy ending. I appreciate what The Help tries to do—reconcile a difficult and contentious history—but the simple approach doesn’t seem like the right one. Where this irked me the most—disappointed me the most—was in the resolution of Minnie’s story. She’s been teaching Celia to cook and in the end, Celia cooks Minnie an elaborate meal and serves it to her in the dining room, a room Minnie has refused to eat in, feeling it’s not “right”. And just as I know there are people as awful as Hilly in the world, I know there are people as good as Celia, but this is just so…pat. It’s such a nice, tidy bow for the movie. Look, the black servant and white employers are genuinely friends! To me, the better, more honest ending would be to show that Celia has learned to cook but she keeps Minnie on as her maid, because everyone knows no one else will hire Minnie at this point. Everyone sitting at the table together feels fake, but continuing to employ help you don’t really need because it’s the right thing to do? That feels more real.
It’s a complicated movie, despite a serious effort at not being so. It’s worth seeing for the acting alone—Davis and Spencer are outstanding—but we should be asking ourselves the difficult questions the movie tries so hard to avoid. We shouldn’t let The Help, or ourselves, off the hook just because we want to feel good about this now. There is no feeling good about this. This past will always exist. It will always be ugly. We can only move forward and try to be better.