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.
Director Tate Taylor had an advantage when it came to getting the film made, writes The Post’s Jen Chaney. He’s childhood friends with the author..
Taylor, a Caucasian man from the South, had to guide a cast of women, white and black, through the often ugly and racist terrain of the civil rights movement. Spencer, 39, insists that neither gender nor racial divides created discord on-set.
“The beauty of having my white friend direct it was that I realized this was just the world I was creating then,” she says. “And if anyone knew the sensitivities, Tate did, and understood where we had to be emotionally.”
Says Taylor: “At the end of the day, we would wrap and 1963 would come to a close. And literally, in 30 minutes, we’d all be eating dinner together, laughing, at somebody’s house.”
The two nostalgically describe a kumbaya vibe during the production, which took place in Greenwood, Miss., 96 miles north of Jackson. But both are keenly aware of the less positive perceptions of the novel written by their mutual friend.
While “The Help” has generated praise and phenomenal sales — it sat atop the Los Angeles Times bestseller list for more than a year after its February 2009 release — some reviewers and readers were uncomfortable with subservient African American women finding liberation via the open-minded and white character Skeeter (played in the movie by Emma Stone), who writes a life-altering tell-all about the indignities they endure.