The Help’s heart is in exactly the right place. I am having some trouble finding its brain, but in most films I cannot even find a heart so perfectly located.
Most films which try to explore the United States’ troubled history seems content to follow a formula. I am sure you recognize the one, in which there is one heroic white character who takes up the cause, one villainous white character who is so stuck in his or her racist ways that the filmmakers might as well make their surname “Crow,” and then an ensemble of minority characters whose main action is to dispense wisdom to the racist society about what it means to be human. This is an easy formula, but one that is not fair or accurate.
The Help does nothing to shake up this formula. Indeed, it follows it to such a strict degree that the script must have read more like a recipe than a screenplay. That is its biggest fault of the film, and one that holds it back from any serious analysis. But still, I cannot dismiss this film, for it still managed to accomplish its goals using methods I thought I had grown tired of. It uses that same formula I described above and makes it seem fresh and somewhat realistic.
The film takes place in early 1960s Mississippi, which actually seems to resemble the 1930s. Almost all of the white families have black maids and live in the same sort of subservient role. One of these women, Aibileen (Viola Davis) has been working as a maid for her entire life. However, she feels that she has been shunned and placed in a subservient role for too long, first with the death of her son, and then when the upper class Hilly Hollbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) tries to create an initiative to have separate bathrooms for the black servants created, as “they carry different diseases than us” (say what?!). She even fires her maid Minnie (Octavia Jackson) for using the restroom indoors. A young woman named Emma (Emma Stone), who aspires to be a writer, tries to get the maids to tell their stories so the world may understand the discrimination that still occurs in the South.
Well, I said this was a formula, and you can pretty much imagine who fits what role. And at times, this became annoying. I did not care for the Hilly character, not because she was a villainous racist, but because the script did not try to explain WHY she was that way. Indeed, there were some throwaway lines that seemed to indicate more about the role than should be. For example, one time Hilly talks about the dangers of what Skeeter is doing, indicating there are “real racists” who would react poorly to her being seen with maids. What is a “real racist?” What does Hilly think she is? Is this a theory that many had at the time? I would like to know, but I guess the film did not. Hilly just becomes a villain because the story so desperately needs one and I guess Miss Howard drew the short straw at the casting meeting or something.
Besides, as an adequate examination of the racial tension of the time period, The Help is almost a complete disaster. The film is just as much about Skeeter as it is about any of the maids. This is just as insulting as anything Hilly does. These characters become nothing more than tools for another character. That is perhaps the biggest fault of the work – Skeeter is the character who is looking for redemption and understanding. The maids are just tools for that redemption. Oh sure, we get an obligatory ending in which one of them finally stands up for herself, but by that time, their plight has been almost forgotten. The happy ending comes, not with victory for the maids (most are still in that role at the end of the film) but in Skeeter’s career taking off. Why filmmakers need a heroic white figure in order to make such stories seem palatable is beyond me.
Still, as much as I found to complain about the film’s execution, there is so much that goes right. I will start with the performances – both Stone and Davis deserve Oscar nominations. Davis may actually deserve to win, depending on how the rest of the season goes. They take their basic archetypes and actually manage to convey a sense of depth to them. Davis, for example, manages to convey real emotion and loss when she describes the death of her son. And Millie is among the funniest characters I have seen so far this year. Most films start with archetypes and stay there. The performances allow these characters to come out as real people.
That is how the film manages to transcend its origins – the actors, at least, truly believe in what they are doing. It is easy to get sucked into their world and understand their plight. If the film does nothing else, it demonstrates why these still relatively unknown actors deserve to be taken seriously. Considering how much they were able to take away from such a simple story, it begs the question of what would have happened if the film had a screenplay worthy of the performances. Still, I am pleased they managed to get as far with the material as they did.
The film possesses one other essential ingredient – it actually feels like 1960s Mississippi – which actually feels like a place that is hopelessly stuck in the days after the Civil War. The hierarchy that was present then was still there, as were all of the social norms and behaviors that allowed some people to be forever outcasts – and not just black people. The production design is impeccable, and really does help people get lost in the world. Maybe that is why so many people love it; for a brief time, they feel like they are in that world. They are still in the fantasy version, but it was nice to see filmmakers go to allow people a glimpse into this turbulent time in such a direct way.
The Help has been touted as the beginning of the Oscar race. This is not an entirely inaccurate statement. The performances are quite good and the film is certainly more palatable than the usual fare. It is easy to see why the film has been embraced. Not so easy to see is why the film thinks that it is being honest about the time period. The film makes far too many mistakes that I wish Hollywood would grow out of. If anyone wants to be honest about the Civil Rights movement, they cannot tell it as a morality play. They certainly cannot make it about a white character looking for a better life. That defeats the purpose. All of the ingredients for a successful, great film are here, but the filmmakers backed down. They found a good film, true, and it deserves to be seen. But I am not sure how long it will be remembered.