Substantive social drama goes south

The Help

on August 08, 2011 by Sara Maria Vizcarrondo

thehelpreview.pngThe Help begins just before the onset of Civil Rights in the romantic milieu of upper class Mississippi. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) has returned from university, unfashionably toting a diploma instead of a fiancé. Her friends, society mavens all, group to play bridge; it's a thin veil to cover their real careers: banishing outsiders, rumor-spouting and indirectly humiliating their "help," the black maids found in every respectable home. In this highly civilized universe, domestic glamour and social order obscure the indignities required to support them. The glittering cast, femmepowerment message and almost inspiring depiction of successful social struggle make The Help an easy sell, so you'd think the filmmakers would be a tad more conscientious about the politics under the surface. Regardless, audiences will be lured, believing a chick flick that trades a wedding for a cause is the best thing that ever happened to the movies.

Emma Stone is another adorable brainiac like the heady Hester Prynne she played in the star-making Easy A. Here, she's a writer who's ignored her romantic side in service of her ambitions (hair and make-up frump her up mightily). Skeeter may be "plain" but she's comfortable in the social circles of Jackson, where all her high school friends look to her to write their society newsletter. The villainous Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, grossly inverting her role as a naïve abolitionist in Lars von Trier's slavery parable Manderlay), is the picture perfect Beelzebub behind all of this in-crowd's activities. Her maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) furnishes her events with food so good it's legend around town, but Hilly still mercilessly insults her by pushing a bill to require outdoor toilets for colored help and counting toilet paper squares to make sure Minny isn't sneaking off to use her loo. As Hilly pesters Skeeter to write an editorial supporting the toilet bill, Skeeter's pestering another maid, Aibileen (the incomparable Viola Davis), to tell her about her experiences raising white children for a newspaper article. Once the Civil Rights movement starts to boil over, Skeeter's testimonials multiply and her article grows into a book she hopes to pitch to a New York editor (Mary Steenburgen), which could open doors that lead away from her deeply conflicted home. Aibeleen and Minny risk everything to tell their stories and an unconvincing romance shows us that Skeeter, too, has something to risk for her efforts—but that hardly matters because outside of a predictably epic performance by Viola Davis, absolutely no one involved seems to have any sense of the stakes.

A chick flick for do-gooders, The Help suffers from a malady common to the discrimination drama: its treatment of inequality is more condescending than the prejudice it aims to remedy. The racism identified in this well-intentioned melodrama is mostly social indignity with the occasional threat of theoretical violence. (Racially motivated violence was very real and in what looks like the interest of discretion, the film has turned that real violence into theory; the one scar we see in the whole film is caused by an abusive husband.) To be abrasively fair, the film can't help pantomiming troubles. All the young cast can offer is abstract empathy. When Bertollucci made his fascism cautionary tale The Conformist, set during the rise of Mussolini, he said the 1930s was so far from the times known by the production they had to base the look of the film on the cinema of the Depression. As a result, The Conformist was a shining beacon of that day's issues in yesterday's nostalgic clothing. Here, the equation is reversed, and we have the problems of yesterday in a package easily mimicked with resources from the nearest thrift store (not to insult the production design, which is gorgeous). But insight is missing across the board. When Skeeter's barely established boyfriend breaks it off because "things were fine how they were" before she went and wrote this book, it's a quarrel as sophisticated and illuminating as a junior high book report—if that.

Though it's possible for a man to aptly portray cunning women, writer/director Tate Taylor is no George Cukor. I hesitate to criticize two-dimensional characters in a melodrama, but this sorority of bad mothers and conniving maidenheads is little more than a tacky regurgitation of already lame Southern stereotypes. Additionally the film bandies in a ridiculous amount of bathroom humor. I have no idea why people think women are into this.

Ultimately, The Help is a missed opportunity. Emboldening a summer chick flick with a message is a great mission and an efficient way to raise awareness. I think The Help is trying to turn candy cinema into what New York Times essayist Dan Kois called "cultural vegetables" (which, now that I write it, sounds like something done in most Southern cuisine). But these candied yams aren't as nutrient-rich as they appear and they leave the audience with ethical indigestion.

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Cicely Tyson
Director/Screenwriter: Tate Taylor
Producers: Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Brunson Green
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material.
Running time: 137 min.
Release date: August 10, 2011


Tags: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Cicely Tyson, Tate Taylor, Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Brunson Green

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  • cvortia on 09 August 2011

    Fantastic review. I'll be keeping this in mind when I see the movie tonight.

  • joyca on 15 August 2011

    I thought it was a wonderful movie. The sustained applause at the movie's end supported my opinion. The message of discrimination and class divides are dealt with just enough not to make young Americans uncomfortable (so they might recommend the movie to friends), but enlightening enough to make them ask questions about how things were in the 60's. I loved the book and the movie.

  • TheMelancholicAlcoholic on 21 August 2011

    Ha ha,
    As a chick lit wannabe for ne'er do wellers, your review of 'The Help' suffers from a malady common to the overly snooty: your attempt at giving us insight is REALLY and ACTUALLY, FAR more condescending than whatever prejudices was displayed in the film.
    Yes, it wasn't as grim as the book was. But it's too easy to conclude that, and then state that this film has failed. The relationship between the maids in the South and their white employers, is really a tat more complex than that of the oppressed and the wealthy. This is what the book tells us, and the film tries to do that.
    I think the filmmakers can be forgiven for not making this as serious as Mississippi Burning or Am. History X. The last one surely, is something which I as a black person don't care to see again.

    Then again, you do have point. Especially now, when Obama and other African-Americans are treated with the same hatred and racism as in the 60s, reminding the the young folk of how it used to be, and that that is NOT a situation to revisit is perhaps no luxury.

  • BlueDocd on 21 August 2011

    Thank you melancholic, you hit the nail on the head. I hardly doubt Sara Maria has experienced anything closely related to prejudice otherwise she wouldn't have written such a condesending review.
    I thought the movie was magnificent!! The acting is definitely Oscar worthy. It's been a long time since I've experienced a movie that made me laugh, think, and cry!!
    I don't understand the criticism Sara. The movie made it's point about the racism that was so perverse and it did it without being overly bearing or overly violent. It was a perfect mix for the underlying story. This movie deserves 4 stars....period!
    If you can't understand this movie you shouldn't be watching them, let alone criticing them!

  • jennyc on 27 August 2011

    I have to agree with melancholyalcolohic (not something I love doing, based on his user name). This review does a disservice to the film by missing the spirit it's presented in.

  • coffeegirl on 27 August 2011

    I have to agree with most of you. I loved the movie and the film! I read the book first and then went to see it with my mother. We were both born and raised in the South, and no, neither of us had 'help' in our homes but we knew people who had help and people who were 'the help'. As I sat in the packed theater filled with people of all races mostly my senior - many my Mom's age and most probably teenagers or young adults during the Civil Rights movement - I was deeply touched by the reactions of both the women and the men in the theater. Laughing, crying and...applause at the end. The Help provoked conversation, thought and emotion. Afterwards I overheard younger women talking to their mothers about what it was like during the civil rights movement...what they saw and went through. What they thought. I had the same conversation with my mom...and let me tell you, it was much more insightful than my history class. If that is the result of a sorority sister melodrama, sign me up. It's a conversation that should be had, good or bad.

    It is really funny to me that critics always seem to pick apart movies about the South. (Wasn't there a Designing Women episode about that? Sorry, is that too southern sorority girl of me? I'd like to see what Julia Sugarbaker would have thought about this film and your subsequent review.). I can only assume that Ms. Vizcarrondo is not from the South. Did you grow up here? Do you have any understanding WHY this movie strikes a chord? It's not even worth explaining, but again just funny and a bit sad that anything from this perspective gets attacked as Junior League melodrama fluff. 'Trades a wedding for a cause'. Seriously? That's what you got out of it? That was what this audience thinks 'is the best thing that ever happened to movies'? Wow. I had no idea people still felt that way about female audiences. What a lame stereotype.

  • coffeegirl on 27 August 2011

    By the way, my mawmaw has the recipe for cultural vegetables. They're delicious!

  • Sara Maria Vizcarrondo on 04 September 2011

    I need to apologize for missing your comments when they appeared online—I’m grateful to the point of disbelief when people take the step past reading and write in. Thank you very much for doing so!

    My father was stationed in Biloxi, MS until I was 8, though I don't think that means I'm from The South. I'm Latina but I pass for white so what racism I've experienced personally was not detrimental. On those grounds you could argue I don't deserve to write on the matter of race, and I would agree. However, my review is not about racism or its place in southern culture--it's about how THE HELP treats these subjects. And THE HELP treated these subjects too gently--we're talking about incredibly harsh realities handled with kid gloves.

    As a critic, I'm obligated to call them as I see them. This is my obligation to the reader. I don't owe any movie anything: not my time, not my attention, not my affection and certainly not my respect. A movie has to earn all that. But the reader is looking for me to earn their attention, their time and (in the best of circumstances) their respect. Everybody earns respect with integrity: we all have to claim a cause and make our efforts fit. With that, do you feel racism deserves a chick flick?

    I realize I'm a pretty militant lady. There’s nothing wrong with making films about quiet acts of revolution happening over coffee tables (in fact, those are some of my favorite stories) but I needed THE HELP to grow some claws and it never did. In fact, it couldn't because it'd built itself a genre box and crawled quickly inside. And people love that genre so...that box probably looked pretty comfy.

    There are plenty of critics who disagree with me, and some have very intelligent points of view. They're trying to fulfill their obligations to their readers--as am I. Which is why I started this comment with an apology for being tardy. As for my review, I stand by it. If I didn't, what good would I be to you?

What do you think?