Help, The

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 08/10/11 14:00:00

"At Least Tyler Perry's Name Isn't On It"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Films about race relations should almost be extinct. Partially because as a people we are nearly a half-century from the Civil Rights movement and a century-and-a-half away from slavery in its traditional terms and we should have evolved those prejudices by now. Of course, as a whole we are not there yet. But what are the movies going to show us that we have not seen already? Whether good or bad they are unlikely to reach the people that need a dose of history and preaching the lesson to the choir may feel just like that - the same sermon we have heard week after week or year after year. It is a tricky undertaking at a time when melodrama and stereotypes have been set back a few decades with the films of Tyler Perry, but should also likely score points for anyone attacking subject matter with black themes simply for not subscribing to his brand of subpar and hypocritical storytelling. Based on the 2009 bestseller by Kathryn Stockett, The Help almost succeeds solely on the strength of its acting, but cannot escape the central hypocrisy that should have been easy-as-pie to fix.

Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home to her family's cotton farm in the early 1960s of Jackson, Mississippi. She was looking forward to seeing the family maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson) who practically raised her while her mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), was chasing social status, but she has moved back to Chicago under the kind of mysterious circumstances that has the dinner table hushing up at her very mention. Skeeter reacquaints with the gals of the area including Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, channeling her inner Michelle Bachmann), the snooty daughter of Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek) who is slowly losing her mind, though maybe not as much as Hilly. She is proposing an initiative for black housemaids to have their own separate bathroom on residence.

Skeeter is apparently the only white girl at the bridge club to recognize how wrong and demeaning this is. She's one of dem der college types with the knowledge and all, not to mention particularly intuitive when she sees the hurt face of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a maid for another young mother not especially keen of being there for her little daughter. Looking for a hook to get her into the door as a writer with a New York publisher, Skeeter decides she wants to do a book of stories from the perspective of "the help." Aibileen is naturally hesitant with the laws being what they are in Jackson but eventually agrees. As does her best friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who has recently butted heads with the new bathroom crusade and has gone to work for Hilly's shunned rival, Celia Foote (a very good Jessica Chastain, channeling her outer Christina Hendricks), who needs Minny to impress her husband in the kitchen without him ever knowing she works for them.

There are subplots upon subplots galore in The Help, rife with secrets both tragic and humorous and because most of them unfold reasonably well into one another, it may provide an excuse for viewers to disavow the problem that hangs over the entire tale from the very beginning. When you are proposing to tell a story that gives a voice to the black maids of the time, it is best to not do it primarily from the focus of a white woman. The book - and occasionally the movie at times - splits its time between the perspectives of Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen is even given the hand down of infrequent narration duties. But screen time wise, this is Skeeter's point of view from the very beginning. You can probably chalk up less than ten of the 139 minutes involving scenes where one of the maids is not being directly reactive to the demands or questions of somebody white and it casts a light shadow on a project that almost refuses to let us know who these women are. Or were.

Aibileen and Minny are wonderful characters, so well played by Davis and Spencer, each bringing just the right touch of pain and sass so as not to become caricatures. Both, but especially Davis, are likely to be talked of highly around Oscar time. So why not start with them and end with them instead of using them as crutches for white girl success and insecurities? The Civil Rights movement certainly had its share of help from Caucasian activists and these maids are not exactly in a position to be pro-active in changing their situation. But the constant shifting of the point of view in Hollywood has never felt as egregious and misinformed as it does here. Aibileen and Minny are allowed to share stories of their work experiences with Skeeter, but neither get even a private moment to open up about their true feelings of what is happening around Jackson or if there is any brief periods of joy connected to the only jobs they qualify for in a racist society. They hear about the assassinations of Medgar Evers and JFK, but they are footnotes in a film that wants to imply that violence exists but never go beyond the PG-13 trappings to express part of the real terror these folks were living through.

Private bathrooms being horrible and all, only once in the film do we see an upfront presentation of the violent thumb occasionally pressing down on our heroines - and that is due to a little resisting arrest for an actual crime. Aibileen harriedly runs home after the Evers shooting to avoid any reciprocal action, Minny's abusive husband is reduced to slapping heard over the phone and JFK is reduced to getting his picture placed on the wall of death alongside Aibileen's son who died due to a work accident and being treated like a wounded stray than direct racial violence (a metaphor reinforced in Constantine's clinging back to the screen door like a puppy watching their master leave.) Maybe the implication is all the film needs to provide the needed pause for the two women to keep from telling their stories in full. Then its hard to fully appreciate a celebratory climax for their efforts where their anonymous covers is all but blown for a community looking for someone to answer for exposing their underbelly of civilization.

The aftermath of Skeeter's publication needs to be a larger component of this journey. Minny comes up with the brainstorm earlier on that will help quash suspicion as to who contributed to the memoir, an implied bit of culinary tampering that would have one of her former employers eating a lot more than Jim Crow if she ever exposed the truth. This gag is indictitive of the way that director and screenwriter Tate Taylor quickly loses his way down the long home stretch. Nearly every scene with characters commenting directly about the book involves this little anecdote. Who knows it, who is willing to laugh about it and who is willing to threaten that they know the party involved would be swallowing a gigantic metaphor along with the real thing. Comuppances are good for a chuckle and easy applause, but would it have killed Taylor and Stockett to reserve part of the epilogue for one of the characters (or even someone anonymous) who wasn't laughing - in jail or out? The final scene is way too manipulative and feeds into the "need" for these women, just as another's happy ending is being given the opportunity to have "a job here for life" as a maid.

Of course this all gets back to the central thesis that The Help is not really about Aibileen and Minny anyway. Skeeter's presence may be slightly reduced in the second half, but it is more than compensated by the other color blind white woman and her need to feel wanted. This is well after Skeeter has initiated everything, proved herself an inferior journalist asking the wrong questions and taken time out of her own subject matter to engage in a potential romance with an oil rig worker friend of Hilly's. Skeeter is hardly the one needing a lesson in judging a human being on first impressions, but her off-and-on courtship with this guy (which is basically three-and-a-half scenes) is entirely reminiscent of the old Dennis Miller joke where he says "why hate someone based solely on the color of their skin when if you took the time to get to know them there are so many more valid reasons to hate a person." None of the misguided protagonist shifts to Skeeter reflects ill on Emma Stone who continues to impress as a leading lady even in a film where she shouldn't be. Debate the division of perspective all you want, but it is Skeeter who is told that "Courage sometimes skips a generation. Thank you for bringing it back to our family." Maybe a couple more decades down the road that generation will get to hear the real stories of The Help.

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