The Help

Well-intentioned period drama concerns ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, a young white aspiring writer who interviews black maids working in her town of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. The aftermath is controversial. Racial unrest is not a subject often taken lightly. However the tone here is certainly much more lighthearted than you would expect. We get a simplified version of civil rights in the 60s. A CliffsNotes primer that sheds precious little insight into the troubling struggles of blacks in the south during this era. Director Tate Taylor’s heart is in the right place. But he does his friend, author Kathryn Stockett, a disservice in adapting her book by reducing the themes to the lowest common denominator. We are pitched a trivialization of good vs. evil to serve a drama that says, racism is bad. It’s an idea presented shallow enough for a 2 year old to follow.

This is a superficial retelling of what life was like in a community governed by the restrictive conditions of Jim Crow laws. These were state and local regulations in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965 that mandated racial segregation in public facilities, with a supposedly “separate but equal” status for black Americans. In reality, this led to treatment and accommodations that were usually inferior to those provided for white Americans. For anyone born after 1965, it’s hard to believe there was a time when such laws existed. A film granted the urgency this subject deserves, would have been a welcome contribution to the cinematic landscape. Unfortunately we are delivered a glossy, beautifully photographed world with rich digitally enhanced colors. The south portrayed here is decidedly one-dimensional. Apparently white women of the region had little to do besides play bridge and ruin people‘s lives with a carefully worded condemnation. The script asserts this view in each frame with all the subtlety of a four alarm fire. These aren’t people, they’re easily recognizable symbols with intolerant attitudes on race and class.

The most artificial of all is Hilly Holbrook. She is single-minded in promoting her cause, something called the Home Help Sanitation Initiative. In her words it would be “a bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help.“ She’s not just racially biased. She’s a seething bigot, a sneering caricature without a sensitive bone in her body. The Wicked Witch of the West was played with more restraint in The Wizard of Oz. Why a reactionary woman like Hilly and a forward thinking one like our hero Skeeter, would have been best friends since childhood is a baffling mystery that is never justified. Regardless, Hilly is a galvanizing performance guaranteed to elicit hisses and boos as she smiles sweetly beneath a facade of well manicured hate. Howard gives the part her all, but by making her such a cartoon, we are denied the opportunity of an intelligent indictment of these reprehensible opinions that were institutionalized as law. The character is such an exaggerated depiction, we can only laugh and shake our head at her utter buffoonery.

There are some nice touches. Actress Viola Davis is mesmerizing as put-upon maid, Aibileen Clark. Davis is a powerhouse of acting talent. She brings a nuance to every line she utters even when the script fails her. She wrings genuine emotion from those words with a distinction and grace that is missing in the picture. Her experience feels real and when she finally reaches her breaking point, it emerges from honest pain. By and large, the maids are more fully formed individuals than the rest of the regrettable lot. In particular, the plot demonstrates the black maids are still capable of raising white children with affection despite being humiliated on a daily basis. Also in another more upbeat scene, social outcast Celia Foote appeals to maid Minny Jackson for cooking help due to her lack of homemaking skills. As played by actresses Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer respectively, they breathe life into these roles and their performances are memorable.  Minny teaches an amusing first lesson about Crisco, “the most important invention in the kitchen since jarred mayonnaise.”

The story ultimately attempts to tackle too many issues in a sanitized manner without doing justice to any of them . Race relations is the main focus, but it’s hardly the only topic the movie addresses. Negligent mothers, abusive husbands, social classes among whites, self esteem, sexism, and strained mother daughter relationships are all touched upon throughout the long 137 minute running time. Simplistic and clichéd, there are few surprises here. The journey is surprisingly conventional. The good people roll their eyes whenever something prejudiced is uttered. Then someone gets their revenge. Cue laughs, applause and the Mary J. Blige song on the soundtrack. The situation largely remains unchanged for everyone, everyone except for perhaps white writer, Skeeter. In fact life actually threatens to get worse for the maids because of her work. The history of the deep south during the early 60s deserves a much more detailed examination than the cursory simplification presented here. If not for Viola Davis’ heartfelt and sincere performance, the film would have been utterly lacking in depth.

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14 Responses to “The Help”

  1. sir jordan Says:

    i’ve been telling people, “if you like people eating feces, this is the film for you.”

  2. Great review, Mark! Very detailed. I respect your point of view. Personally, I’m excited to see this film but don’t know yet where I stand towards it since I’ve been reading mostly positive reviews and even Oscar buzz. Yours is the first one I’ve read that actually criticizes it, so it’s nice to see both sides.

    • Actually there have been several bad reviews for the film. The Village Voice, the Washington Post, the Hollywood Reporter, the Boston Globe, the New York Post, even the New York Times are among the publications that gave the film a negative critique.

      Viola Davis deserves a nomination as I thought she was excellent. I also mentioned Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in my review. They were memorable, but not Oscar worthy. If anyone else gets a nomination, it’s because there were a lack of choices for nominees.

  3. I knew going into this film , it was going to be as you described. However, in knowing that, I still loved it! I didn’t look too deep into the movie, so I just enjoyed the outer shell. Aibileen, Minny and Celia Foote were my favorite characters.

    • I honestly was all prepared to love it. I had the idea I was going to get a more serious expose of race relations of the time period. I’ve seen episodes of The Jeffersons that treated this subject with more authenticity. But let’s face it, the audience erupted in applause at the end so obviously you weren’t alone.

  4. magnolia12883 Says:

    I really enjoyed Jessica Chastain – all but completely unrecognizable as the vapid but well-intentioned blonde who hires the (ahem) black-balled Minnie Jackson after an almost unrecognizable (in physique and spirit) Bryce Dallas Howard fires her. Viola Davis is great even in small roles in forgettable films. Emma Stone disappointed me only because I don’t feel like the film gives her as many notes to play and as much to do as she is capable of. And yes things for the maids of Jackson will be worse because of her book. Twat.

    • fastfilmreviews Says:

      I agree on both counts. I really enjoyed Jessica Chastain. She reminded me of Jessica Lange in Blue Sky. She was so over the top, Marilyn Monroe style. Emma Stone is a wonderful actress, but she was miscast here. I never believed her to be the plain, socially awkward character she was supposed to be.

  5. magnolia12883 Says:

    And I was annoyed at the around 25 elderly people who filed in right in the beginning of the trailers and talked throughout all 137 minutes. Ugh.

  6. I have not seen the movie, but have just finished the book. Your review of the movie could be equally true of the book. First off it is written after the big 60’s racial relations saga of change. Rather than being a pitch for change it falls into the catagory of Nazi tales about how enlightened WE are and how bad people of another time were. If the book had come out in the 60s it might have meant something.
    But it was written not from personal observation but about a previous generation by one of the following generation. The maid’s stories are caricatures not of real substance and written from hindsight not currently played out.

  7. fastfilmreviews Says:

    Although when a book was written is important, it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of it. Obviously history will always be in the past. All films about the past will always be after-the-fact. Schindler’s List in an example of a brilliant and intelligent film not made during the time period. With that said, The Help was just an over simplification of attitudes and events that didn’t even scratch the surface. When I want to see a film about this subject, I’ll watch To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes I know that was written in 1960.

  8. hi mark, while i agree with you on almost all points, i did find the movie entertaining and enjoyable. the film should be marketed as a comedy because all the players except for viola davis are one dimensional and so predictable. i think in fact that ms daviss performance doesn’t fit in and kind of confuses the viewer into thinking the movie really has something to say…NOT.. the themes that are touched upon that you mentioned are so glossed over and made trivial. all and all though i did enjoy it. why? hollywood magic

  9. You made many good points in this well-written review, and most of them were agreeable. However, being a fan of the book (and since the adaptation was quite faithful), I have to disagree with your overall POV. Viola Davis definitely did not play a great Aibileen, you were right about that, for one, but if you read the book, you feel quite the same way, as if it were a movie in which just that one character had trouble acting. On a second note, the film was quite superficial, as there was a lot (well, let’s emphasize a LOT) of unexpected humor, some of which many people would not even find funny. I wasn’t alive back then, and I don’t know if you were or not, but what if that’s how the maids actually were back then? This is one of the films you would have to do some historical research as well as read the source novel, and then maybe you would appreciate the film. I’m not insulting your review (it was agreeable and well-written, as I stated in the beginning of this comment); I just think it needs a little broader background than just the motion picture itself.

    • Since you read the book, you bring an interesting perspective. However, I shouldn’t have to read the novel to enjoy the film. I’m judging The Help for its ability to entertain. I’m also evaluating its ability to present realistic characters based on the historical period. The emphasis was too much on comedy. It felt superficial to me.

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