Black and white, and not enough 'Help'
By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, Aug 10, 2011
Next to "Harry Potter," perhaps no book adaptation this summer has been more highly or anxiously anticipated than "The Help," based on the 2009 surprise bestseller of the same name.
Fans of Kathryn Stockett's folksy, ingratiating novel can rest easy: The director, Tate Taylor - a childhood friend of the author, who, like her, grew up in Jackson, Miss., where the story is set - has preserved the book's story line, characters and confiding tone with loyalty worthy of any best friend.
Fair warning: "The Help," which Taylor wrote for the screen as well as directed, isn't likely to win any converts among those who couldn't abide Stockett's dialect-heavy writing and earnest but vaguely self-congratulatory tale of a young white writer who strikes up a Jim Crow-defying friendship with black domestic workers in 1963 Mississippi.
But readers who felt they came to intimately know characters such as Celia, Minny and Skeeter are likely to greet their alter egos on screen like cherished, long-lost friends - especially the nobly suffering Aibileen, here brought to quietly watchful life by Viola Davis.
Indeed, not surprisingly, Davis is the best thing about "The Help," in which she stars with a veritable cavalcade of up-and-coming actresses. They include Jessica Chastain (seen this summer in "The Tree of Life," here delivering a complete 180 from her ethereal presence in that film with a garishly giddy performance as the wrong-side-of-the-tracks Celia); Bryce Dallas Howard as the conniving, hysterically racist Hilly; and Emma Stone as Skeeter, the recent Ole Miss graduate who is searching for work as a writer as "The Help" opens.
Skeeter gets a job as a newspaper cleaning-advice columnist, but when she asks Aibileen for some tips, she realizes that the real story lies in the emotional lives of black women who virtually raise their white employers' children, but who are treated by those same families as unfit to share a kitchen utensil, much less political or economic power. "You is kind, you is smart and you is impo'tant," Aibileen repeatedly intones to her young white charge.
As anguishing as those scenes are, both in vernacular and substance, there's no denying the cathartic exhilaration of watching Aibileen, Minny (Octavia Spencer, in a breakout performance) and Skeeter form their fragile but potent friendship, even as they keep their furtive meetings secret from their respective communities.
Skeeter is under her own pressures to hew to traditional definitions of Southern womanhood and get married like her friends, who inherit their low-wage servants much as some of their ancestors might have inherited enslaved people. But Skeeter's discomfort serves as an inadequate index for the pain and suffering of Aibileen and Minny, who endanger their very lives by speaking candidly about segregation's grimmest realities.
One of those truths, which "The Help" deserves praise for bringing to light, is that racism should be understood less as a matter of black grievance than of unexamined white privilege and pathology. And no one is more race-crazy than Hilly, portrayed by Dallas Howard in "The Help's" weakest performance as a cruel, snake-eyed witch whose villainy extends to making Minny use an outside toilet even during a hurricane.
Hilly's monstrousness is in keeping with "The Help's" tendency to reduce its characters to stock types, but it has the effect of enabling white viewers to distance themselves from racism's subtler, more potent expressions. (Far more troubling than Hilly's brand of insanity is the disapproving but passive acquiescence of her mother, played with vinegary brio by Sissy Spacek.)
With clunky, episodic pacing, Taylor traces the genesis and effect of Skeeter's project, including "The Help's" climactic sequence, when Minny performs an act of subterfuge that, depending on taste and perspective, will play like a heroic act of subversion or a crass burlesque. Surely both taste and perspective will inform whether viewers will find "The Help" a revelatory celebration of interracial healing and transcendence, or a patronizing portrait that trivializes those alliances by reducing them to melodrama and facile uplift. (By way of comparison, the 2008 drama "The Secret Life of Bees" struck a far more sensitive, observant chord in its portrayal of similar themes in a similar place and time.)
As affectionately as Taylor has brought "The Help" to the screen, and as gratifying as it is to watch Davis and Spencer bring Aibileen and Minny to palpable, fully rounded life, their narrative, like "The Blind Side" a few years ago, is structured largely around their white female benefactor. That this is the story we keep telling ourselves is all the more puzzling - if not galling - when viewers consider that, precisely at the time that "The Help" transpires, African Americans across Mississippi were registering to vote and agitating for political change. In other words, they were helping themselves. And, on screen at least, their story remains largely untold.
Contains thematic material.