As a piece of entertainment, The Help succeeds where Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls failed: this comic melodrama is geared to please a broad audience by contrasting the experiences of black and white women in 1960s America, just before the Civil Rights Act and the popularity of feminism. Sisterhood is shown as a circumstance of different but shared sacrifices based on gender, but controlled by race and class.
These secret relationships are exposed when Southern belle and aspiring journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) writes a memoir-confessional featuring stories told by the black women of Jackson, Miss., that reveal how middleclass white women promote a system that constrains them while they, ironically, keep underclass black women in penury as maids, cooks and wet nurses—"the help."
The title phrase evokes Faulkner’s axiom "the keeper of our conscience." Whereas For Colored Girls was an ordeal of suffering that excluded white women’s experience, The Help sentimentalizes all female fortitude, delighting, Fried Green Tomatoes-style, in the perseverance of Aibileen (Viola Davis), who boasts, "Looking after white babies, that’s what I do"; her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer), a legendary cook; and lastly, but centrally, Skeeter.
Empathic storytelling like this has considerable charm, but newcomer Tate Taylor’s direction and adaptation of the book by Kathryn Stockett indulges prefeminist nostalgia more than it faces the complex realities of American racism. Finding erroneous humor in the way black women outsmarted their white mistresses through wily social courage and culinary artistry is deceptively attractive. To imply that all this has passed and can now be accepted by our advanced, socially tolerant era depends upon a certain falsification of how the black-white, mammy-mistress symbiosis operated. Taylor’s interest in updating historical embarrassments leads to a shallow view of a tradition that began in slavery but continues on in the casually sustained interplay of pain and affection, dependence and resentment.
Casting Viola Davis, the wiry, darkskinned Broadway actress who was Oscar-nominated for Doubt, as the grieving, embittered Aibileen immediately distorts the issue. Aibileen narrates, "Babies like fat—they like my fat legs, too," but Davis doesn’t fit that Mammy stereotype. Instead, her specialty is a very contemporary, Denzel-style anger— convenient for those who are discomfited by a more complex African-American female personality. (That’s probably why Hollywood has yet to adapt Caroline, or Change, Tony Kushner’s extraordinary musical on a similar subject.) Aibileen’s anger reverses the Mammy complex, changing ambivalence into modern guilt. Except for tomboy Skeeter, the film’s white women are extreme caricatures. This simplifies racism as aberrant to American social custom and denies its normality.
When the great Ethel Waters played mammy to Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding, she represented a fount of human warmth and wisdom that The Help doesn’t countenance. Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, Frances E. Williams as the profoundly named Sybil in The Reckless Moment and Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun all added their individual ambition and talent to the archetype, making it undeniable and noble—even if it is now unfashionable, it remains endlessly fascinating. The Help doesn’t access those actresses’ awesome physical presence and spiritual integrity. Davis describes "a bitter seed was planted inside me" to explain Aibileen’s sadness, but her neurosis—exactly what Mo’Nique avoided portraying as the ludicrous monster-mammy in Precious— gratifies white guilt rather than admitting collusion and indebtedness. Even Cicely Tyson’s appearance as Skeeter’s wizened old mammy carries the condescending dignity of her later roles, rather than her ’70s landmarks The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Sounder, which inspired Pauline Kael’s pinpoint admiration of her "unconned intelligence."
The Help demonstrates
the conned intelligence of the "post-racial" and "postblack" Obama era,
where the anxieties of unequal yet mutually beneficial black-white
relationships are conveniently, speciously, put behind us. Caroline, or Change said different—so did Regina Taylor’s stunning forbearance in the ’90s TV series I’ll Fly Away and the sisterly confidences of Lynn Nottage’s recent Off-Broadway play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. The Help is
only truly progressive in the supporting role of Minny, to whom
hard-staring comic actress Spencer brings a new kind of nononsense
funny—everything Mo’Nique missed—whether when asserting, "Minny don’t
burn fried chicken" or speaking truth to Jessica Chastain’s delightfully
delusional white outcast.
It is Minny, not Aibileen, who gets to update the most subversive gesture of defiance from The Color Purple. Perhaps true black feminism is still too radical to take center screen in mainstream Hollywood. The Help acknowledges
black women’s plight, yet tips the balance away from them to Stone’s
Skeeter—as did such do-gooder feminist race movies as Clara’s Heart, Love Field, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Long Walk Home and Far From Heaven. The problematic The Secret Life of Bees took
this subject head on; there Dakota Fanning gave a heart-rending
portrayal of primal racial interdependence that pierced the
self-protective myths of the past and present, while The Help settles for mere entertainment.
Directed by Tate Taylor
Running time: 137 min.