The Help is one of those films that rolls out every so often with the idea of reaffirming a generalized point of view that no one can possibly deny having anyway… now, in any sufficiently large public forum. It’s the 1960s, we’re in Jackson, Mississippi, and there is some technical sense in which people of color are no longer slaves.
The film lays out the conflicting attitudes of white people, with the general result that – A) by and large, white people were really awful bastards, but B) some of them must have been fairly decent, because (among other things) black people didn’t vote to give themselves the right to vote, or make sure they eventually actually got to use it when they had it.
Though a great many films have run along this basic road, to a variety of overall results, The Help is an effort that, while rich with complexities and emotion, aims not only at spinning perhaps the most digestible yarn it can out of the fabric it has, but also weaves in a sort of fairy tale end that softens the final look until things become almost forgettable.
Somewhat oddly (if you know nothing of the machinations of those preparing books for film audiences), I am led to understand that this end has nothing to do with the events of the popular novel.
It all starts with Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) returning home from college to find that her maid is no longer with her family. No one will talk about it, but Skeeter is determined to discover what happened to the woman who, for the most part, raised her. Meanwhile, she also has to figure out how exactly she meshes back in with the society she left, and wants a job.
Her natural circle of peers are among the socialite sect, and their unqualified leader is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a wonderfully obnoxious snob who is currently fixated on promoting the idea that residents of Jackson should build separate bathrooms for their colored maids.
Skeeter manages to procure a job at the local paper, but it’s a cleaning advice column. She enlists Aibileen (Viola Davis), a maid who works for one of the circle, to help, but Skeeter’s writing bug isn’t satisfied. Finding herself appalled by the general treatment of the maids, and the elitist attitudes of her “friends,” Skeeter decides to write a book from the perspective of the local “help,” sharing their stories, and their point of view on life.
Naturally, Aibileen is reluctant to tell tales on her employer, or anyone else, because losing your job is only one concern for a black woman in 1960s Mississippi. Aibileen’s best friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer), who features prominently in the film, thinks the idea is insane. Skeeter is persistent though, and she quickly wins over the pair, largely because she exudes genuineness. The women sneak around compiling the book, ever fearful of the wrath that will befall them if anyone finds out what they’re doing. As events unfold, Minny is soon fired when she decides to thumb her nose at Hilly’s separate bathroom rather than brave a hurricane, and she finds that the only person who will hire her is the ostracized “white trash” wife, Celia (Jessica Chastain).
Events play out much as we’d expect at this point, and the film’s main value comes wherever it slides briefly away from these expectations. We know where we’re going on the main front, and our arc is too timid to make anything like a real statement. Instead, it is ultimately neither social commentary, nor criticism, but a kind of long and winding footnote in some other story. On the other hand, when we veer off, we find that the film has some voice after all. Minny’s relationship with Celia, for example, who is herself the victim of Hilly’s social bootprints, delivers more insight to the situation at large than anything. It also provides one of the film’s best moments, for comedy or social exposition, when Hilly and her bridge club actually hide from Celia like a bizarre band of schoolgirls.
What the film lacks in bite, it more than makes up for in entertainment value. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are both brilliant in their roles, with Davis perhaps deserving of award note. The only flaw in her portrayal comes by way of the fact that there isn’t sufficient meat to this exercise to render her role in the category of, this exact Mississippi maid, as opposed to a role that is more in line with some sort of “everymaid.”
Still, there is much to love here, and if this all sounds rather negative, it is only because this was almost a great film. The perspective, in several ways, immediately makes for something that might have laid things out in a far more meaningful way. Skeeter is a young woman in a world which finds white girls raised by black maids, with all the complexities entailed in the fact that a child’s love somehow does not keep most of them from growing up to be their mothers. Skeeter, home from college and with “worldly” dripping off her, is faced with social battles she doesn’t know how to face, not least with her mother and the secret of how Skeeter’s own “raiser” disappeared. Now spin Skeeter’s view of the world into one that also wants to sing the brutally honest view of these maids to the world, and there is something to be said in there.
There is little doubt that most people will enjoy the film. Unfortunately, with all the angles from which this film could speak, all it actually manages is to vaguely allude to the idea that there is something to say, but it’s effort to fit in the mainstream means it doesn’t have the guts to actually say any of it. Which is rather ironic.