Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review: "The Help" offers a surprisingly thoughtful look at domestic racism

Film Rating: B+

The Help comes very, very close to being a truly great movie.  It deals with familiar subject matter, but at its best, approaches the material from a fresh and thoughtful perspective.  There’s a message here that’s not so much about racism as it is about institutional thought and culture, and since it’s set in the early 1960s, it showcases the birth of the generation and attitudes that would eventually begin tearing these institutions apart.  The film struggles tonally – the sillier sections beg for some Mad Men style subtlety – but when the story is at its calmest and most reflective, it shines very brightly, thanks in no small part to the handful of mesmerizing performances that draw out the latent power of the material.

Read the rest of the review after the jump...

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, The Help focuses on two main characters; Aibileen (the wonderful Viola Davis) is a middle-aged African-American woman who has spent her whole life raising white children from upper-class families, and has recently lost her only child of her own.  Young Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (the also wonderful Emma Stone) comes from an upper-class white family, but doesn’t conform to the cultural attitudes of Jackson.  She’s a writer, determined to have a successful career, which puts her at odds with the women of the town, all of whom want to see Skeeter married, just like them.  When Skeeter returns to Jackson from college, she learns that her family has fired their housekeeper of 29 years; this maid, Constantine, raised Skeeter, and she is devastated by what her family has done.  Skeeter suddenly becomes more conscious of how ‘the help’ are treated in her town, especially by the vile Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), and decides to write a book from their point of view.  Skeeter first approaches Aibileen, who is initially reluctant to take the risk, but eventually agrees to tell Skeeter her stories.

There have been plenty of stories about the pre-civil-rights-era racial divide, but what makes The Help special is that it focuses on…well, the help.  The relationship between a black housekeeper and the well-off white folks employing them is a fascinating one; for many children of the era, their own mothers may as well never have existed, because these kids were raised, for all intents and purposes, by the African-Americans hired to watch them.  Yet when these white kids grew up, they would eventually act like their parents, having children and hiring somebody else to raise them.  It went beyond culture; by the time the 1960s (the setting of the film) rolled around, it was institutional, and nobody questioned what was clearly a destructive practice for all involved.     

The Help highlights this phenomenon from the very beginning, how the culture of parents trusting child rearing to hired help hurt both blacks and white.  It’s what draws Aibileen and Skeeter together.  Aibileen has spent her whole life loving and raising kids that were never actually hers, slashing the amount of time she has to spend with her own boy, whose death serves as a sort of wake-up call.  Skeeter regards the maid Constantine as her ‘real’ mother, yet her biological parents fired the woman over something trivial.  Skeeter is appalled: how can something as sacred as the bond between a child and their parent – whether or not that parent gave birth to them – be abolished as a matter of business?  For Aibileen, how is it fair that she got to spend more time with the kids she was paid to raise than with her own biological son?  Clearly, something has to change, and Skeeter and Aibileen come to the same conclusion: telling their stories is the first step towards altering the system.

‘System’ is the key word here, because The Help is at its most fascinating when it focuses on how and why the role of the housekeeper has become institutional.  An excellent subplot involving Aibileen’s best friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer) and the wealthy but socially outcast white housewife Celia (Jessica Chastain) illustrates some of the ways in which Jackson’s racially-divided domestic system perpetuates itself.  The culture among well-to-do white women in Jackson is all about marrying and having children, but not for the purposes of falling in love or desiring to raise offspring.  Instead, marriage and childbirth are just a part of becoming socially successful, of creating an ‘exclusive’ inner-circle in suburbia; maids like Aibileen and self-conscious youngsters like Skeeter are fully aware of the system’s unintended consequences, but those wrapped up in their social life, like Hilly Holbrook, don’t see it that way.

It’s a fascinating and unique approach to looking at racism, one that isn’t based on blind prejudice.  In the suburbs, at least, racism perpetuates because the upper-class have an elaborate social game to play, and they require affordable labor to raise their children and clean their houses.  Racism undeniably grows out of this system, but if anything, that racism is a cultural coping method so these women can mask their own insecurities.  Those unsure of themselves treat blacks like objects to be hired and ordered around, but those with a good amount of self-confidence and intrinsic motivation, like Skeeter or Celia, are perfectly willing to accept blacks into their lives as equals and friends.  Since this is set in the sixties, we know full well that there will be a lot more Skeeter’s out there as time goes by; strong, career-driven women will one day overtake the Hilly’s of the world, and in the suburbs that The Help focuses on, that will go a long way towards reducing or eradicating the racist practices that drive the domestic system.

As you can tell, The Help gave me an awful lot to think about; it’s an extremely thought-provoking work, and I could write many more pages simply analyzing the plot and thematic material.  It paints a deft portrait of the racial divide, one that is not just black and white, so to speak, but one that is more complex, a reality where people on both sides of the line had to team up and learn from one another to move forward as a society. 

But as thought-provoking as the film is, it also drops the ball in several crucial areas, especially where the character of Hilly Holbrook is concerned.  Bryce Dallas Howard does a very good job in the role, but as a character, Hilly seems to fly in the face of the film’s deep thematic undertones.  Hilly is written as a cartoon, someone whose racism and treachery knows no limits; early on, it’s established that she more or less runs the suburbs, and the script asserts her as the ‘villain’ of the picture, the antagonist in need of being taken down.  This seems to run contrary to the larger, institutional picture the story paints; the system doesn’t exist because of one vile woman, but because of a larger cultural consciousness, a fact Hilly’s presence seems to negate.  Taking her down a peg wouldn’t solve a damn thing, yet the final act spends way too much time on elaborate comeuppances (which is ironic, since Aibileen gets to utter three words in the final scene that are far more effectively damning).  Hilly isn’t an inherently flawed creation – I imagine a less cartoony version of the character, one who is snooty and in charge but not the all-powerful arbiter of the system, would be fine – but in this incarnation, she really brings the film down.

There are other narrative and tonal touches hold The Help back from greatness.  The expository narration in the first act is clunky, there are a few too many overt “look-how-different-life-was-in-the-sixties” moments, cheap laughs are interjected into otherwise serious sequences, and Thomas Newman’s dull, phoned-in musical score is completely wrong for the film.  But more often than not, The Help simply works, and it works beautifully.  There are many very powerful sequences spread throughout, none more so than the final standoff between Aibileen and Hilly, and the film is engaging from beginning to end.

This wouldn’t be true were it not for the performances.  I would not be at all surprised if Viola Davis takes home an Oscar next year for her role as Aibileen, and she would absolutely deserve it.  Davis, best known for her spellbinding turn in the religious drama Doubt, has a way of sinking into a character and breaking the audience’s heart, something she does splendidly as Aibileen.  Davis drives many of the film’s best moments, including the aforementioned final scene, a sequence so incredibly well-acted that it alone cements her performance as one of the best of the year.

As Minny, Octavia Spencer doesn’t get to hit all the same emotional beats as Davis, but she may actually have more screen-time, and she’s just as engaging; she also earns many of the film’s biggest laughs.  As for Emma Stone, Skeeter is another role that doesn’t take full advantage of her considerable talents, but she does a terrific job nevertheless, making the character more compelling than she probably was on page.  The only performance of note that absolutely doesn’t work comes from Allison Janney, who plays Skeeter’s mother.  I don’t know how much of this is Janney’s fault – the script has no idea whether this person should be sympathetic or an uncouth cartoon like Hilly – but no matter what, her brand of shtick simply isn’t right for the part.

The Help is an undeniably flawed film, but the parts that work are so incredibly good that overlooking those flaws is a practically automatic response.  I can’t justify giving the film a rating higher than a B+, but it’s so well-acted and thought-provoking that I strongly encourage every person reading this to see the film as soon as possible.  I have trouble imagining anybody disliking the film, and those less critical about narrative or thematic cohesion are bound to enjoy it even more than I did. 

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