Recently I watched The Help, the film based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name, recalling the little information and personal experience I have with the racial and class relations of North America in the past and present. I also bear in mind that the vocal, intellectual overloads have determined to guaranteeing that everyone will dislike it.
To clarify the film’s plot, the racial inequality within Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) home town of Jackson, Mississippi escalates when, during an afternoon of bridge, Skeeter’s childhood friend Hilly Holbrook (Howard) proposes that each house must have a different bathroom for the help – more like outhouses with their unfinished plywood exteriors. Hilly doesn’t have the gift of cognitive dissonance, as part of the job description of a maids, not being able to share bathrooms with their mistresses because “their people have certain diseases,” is to have direct contact with their bosses’ children on a daily basis.
These prejudices lead Skeeter to write a book in the perspective of the titular help. Her publisher tells her that she needs at least a dozen accounts from these maids to make the book credible, which is great except that twisting the arm of her first witness, Aibileen (Viola Davis), is difficult enough. Speaking of difficult, oppression rules as Hilly fires her maid Minnie (Octavia Spencer) for using the inside bathroom, making Minnie walk out in the rain – God damn it, melodrama – and resorting to have to work for Celia (Jessica Chastain) and her self esteem issues.
Mind you, there’s a lot to dislike. There is smaller things like actresses Bryce Dallas Howard, Alison Janney and Emma Stone occasionally dropping their Southern accents throughout the film while Ms. Stein (Mary Steenburgen), the protagonist’s New York publisher surprisingly has a Southern accent as well. There are also bigger problems like the film’s distressing depictions of racial tensions in the 1960′s, including Viola Davis’ character Aibileen, whose portrayal of Hattie McDaniel-era black acting is so accurately uncomfortable. The latter can be also said about minor roles like the ‘white trash’ Celia Foote, an archetype as old as Lillian Hellman and Constantine (Cicely Tyson), Skeeter’s recently fired nanny whose old age and braided hair evokes Native American imagery, adding another layer of the film’s signature white guilt.
More problems ahead, like the musical score that won’t let the dialogue do the talking, prompting Skeeter’s ‘Constantine’ flashbacks. I also can’t believe, as someone who thinks that women are underrepresented in films since 1998, that I’m complaining about the lack of men in the movie. That this movie doesn’t speak to the plurality of black experience from its rising and invisible middle class to the rural black communities like the ones shown in Bowling for Columbine, although I suppose that it’s beyond the film’s scope. Or most importantly, that everything in this movie falls into place – familial, local, national events, even a sermon in Aibileen’s church all happen conveniently so that Skeeter gets what she needs to finish her book before her deadline. And when that deadline arrives, the book only has a local and not a national effect and Aibileen and another maid, Minnie (Octavia Spencer) urge Skeeter to put her personal goals first, throwing away a significant amount of the political struggle for which they have fought.
The Help sets a complex power dynamic between blacks and whites. By the time Skeeter has her third or fourth interview with Aibileen, the latter says something shocking about her boss and commands Skeeter to write that down. Skeeter doesn’t flinch at this command but I did. It is, however, naive to say that this dynamic didn’t exist before Skeeter’s visits as co-dependence arguably binds women of both races. The black characters as maternal figures yet as targets of disgust, the white characters growing up to be the racist monsters that their parents were. Three generations before the film’s settings, slavery hardened its practitioners and the same can be said about the mothers hiring these maids. When Skeeter’s mother (Janney) fires Constantine or when Hilly has that last scene, it’s as if these women are guided by an invisible hand beyond cruelty and prejudice.
The film also admirably exposes the infighting between the maids and most importantly, the anger that they have against their mistresses. Aibileen and Minnie’s are not merely passive victims as their first words of dissent are said in the kitchen where no one can hear them, but they eventually get the courage to tell Skeeter what they really feel. Both women also deal with the ambiguities of their position, that they can still love and find humor within the white women and their children. And their pain more than helps their catharsis, intentionally standing out more than the artifice in their mistresses’ costumes – this movie arguably also is about artifice as well as the archaism of that artifice or any open-ended reconciliation that’s necessary in a more conventional handling of its touchy subject matter.
- ‘The Help’ Isn’t Racist. Its Critics Are. | The New Republic – John McWhorter.
- Not Just Movies: The Help (Tate Taylor) – Jake Cole.