(The following piece assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the movie being discussed and as such is no respecter of restraint in the matter of spoilers. Be ye warned!)
Here it is, the second week of September, and I’m finally getting a chance to weigh in on a movie that everyone was talking about last month, a movie that may be all talked out, except for at the end of the year and when Oscar nominations are rolled out in January. Please forgive my tardiness. The movie is, of course, The Help , the “surprise” hit based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel centered on the day-to-day hardships and trials of two African-American maids, the stoic, soul-weary, profoundly angry Aibileen (Viola Davis) and the feisty, funny, perhaps reckless Minny (Octavia Spencer), and the young white woman, Skeeter (Emma Stone), who dreams of making inroads into the (white) man’s world of professional journalism. Skeeter’s own experience with gender-related oppression, and her own memories of closeness to the black nanny who brought her up, allows her to sense a need to tell the stories of these women who, as a result of the prevalent racism of the Jackson, Mississippi of the early 1960s, have made their way through life caring for and providing the support for the white children of women and families who nonetheless treat them more like pets and possessions than human beings. The Help has endured the criticism of intelligent critics who have accused it of bolstering dewy-eyed nostalgia for the racism of the good old days, and arguments against the movie based on its supposed focus on its white characters at the expense of the blacks in the story have been trotted out almost by rote, a kneejerk response to another bout of supposedly kneejerk, feel-good Hollywood liberalism.
Make no mistake: Hollywood has offered plenty of reason in the past to make anyone reasonably suspicious about its ability to see a movie through anything but Caucasian-colored glasses, to "come to terms" with the subject of racism. In the ‘80s movies like Cry Freedom (1987), a Denzel Washington movie ostensibly about anti-Apartheid activist Steven Biko, and A Dry White Season (1989) both couched their critiques of racist South African culture in terms that shifted the focus from the outrage of the oppressed to the inconveniences and hardships of the white minority. (The last third of Cry Freedom takes place after the death of Biko and is concerned only with a white journalist’s attempt to smuggle himself and his family out of South Africa in order that Biko’s story might be told.) Those movies were pats on the back to the white moviegoers who presumably wouldn’t stand for a movie that placed its attention solely on the perspective of the black characters in the story. (Moviegoers of all races, creeds and colors returned the favor by largely ignoring these films at the box office.) Filtering black experience through ostensibly more marketable white voices and faces is hardly a phenomenon restricted to just these two movies, but even on the scale of failed intentions these wishy-washy epics are hardly among the worst offenders.
A movie like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning is the kind of Academy Award-friendly film that critics of The Help are understandably still smarting from; its whole modus operandi is to brutally trample over the history of the Civil Rights Movement in order to not only elevate the Southern white experience as essentially and emotionally more important in this historical context, but also to justify and falsify the participation of the FBI, which in reality probably did as much to undermine the progress of the movement as it did to seek out justice on behalf of those whose lives it was meant to change. Mississippi Burning offers only the pictorially compelling outrage of black men and women hanging from trees; there are no even modest equivalents of Aibileen or Minny to provide voices for the actual people whose lives were made intolerable, or snuffed out, by the tradition of bigotry and prejudice that was a hallmark of the era, in the North, South, East and West. Incredibly, once the movie moves past the assassination of the three civil rights workers (an incident modeled on the grim fates of James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner), there isn’t a black character in the film that doesn’t exist solely to be murdered, bludgeoned or humiliated in cinematically hysterical fashion. And the movie’s lunkheaded revenge fantasy doesn’t kick into full gear until Gene Hackman’s fed, pointedly intolerant of his partner Willem Dafoe’s pacifistic methodology, erupts into righteous fury when the white wife of a local deputy who may have had a hand in the murders is brutally assaulted by her husband.
So yes, I understand that people might have cause to be suspicious about a movie like The Help which, on its surface, might not seem to be any different than a well-meaning sop like The Long Walk Home, another drama of the friendship between a maid (Whoopi Goldberg) and the woman for whom she works (Sissy Spacek) which becomes much more about how the white woman reacts to the spiraling repercussions of the Montgomery bus boycott than the story of the black people who were more directly affected by it. But it seems an act of almost willful disregard to what’s on screen to claim that The Help is little more than the standard sugarcoated Hollywood whitewash. For Matt Zoller Seitz, writing in Salon, the movie is “a heart-tugging Hollywood film (that) transforms a harrowing and magnificent period of African-American life into a story of once-blinkered white people becoming enlightened.” Seitz, and many other critics who expressed similar distaste for the movie, are dissatisfied with both the “perky proto-feminism” of the portrayal of Skeeter and the “bigoted, greedy, petty, pinch-faced shrews” that make up what passes for decent white society (female division). These are descriptions that I would argue are as broad and limiting as they claim the realization of the characters and performances to be.
Skeeter may be operating from a position of impatience with the way her gender is treated in the professional world, but it’s that very impatience that softens her to see the parallel (not equivalence, mind) between her brand of oppression and that of Aibileen and Minny. Skeeter may technically be the force who puts the plot into motion in that she suggests the idea of gathering the womens’ stories into a book, but the movie breathes long before Skeeter expresses that idea. It gathers life in the eyes and voice of Viola Davis, in the secrets and anguish they hold back; in fact, Skeeter is off-screen for a large portion of the back half of the movie, the better for it to delve into the spaces where women, black and white, simply sit together and talk, quietly breaking rules of impropriety and law in order to find tentative moments of mutual respect and grace. (It is in the relationship between Minny and Jessica Chastain’s Celia, a role that could have succumbed to pathetic caricature were it not for Chastain’s comic timing and empathy, where these moments get their finest, freest rein.)
As for the villainy of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly and her minions, both the movie and the actresses benefit from the movie’s exaggeration (only slight, I would argue) of the well-familiar type of snotty, upwardly mobile sewing circle of bitchery in the name of (gasp) dramatic license. (How much less “believable” are these carefully coiffed monsters than their counterparts in a modern satire like Weeds?) It’s a comedic exaggeration that, like many such instances before it in Hollywood history, is born not so much of a tin ear as a simple desire to entertain, and in those terms Howard and company could hardly be faulted. Hilly and her company of shrews serve a dramatic function, as a recognizable microcosm of the racism that plagued Jackson in 1963, but it seems the crime of The Help in their regard is not so much the broad strokes of vileness with which they are painted but instead treating them with a measure of bawdy humor and perhaps even sympathy for the curse of their prejudice. (How much easier all this would be to swallow if it were treated with weight and grim import, grainy black-and-white cinematography substituting a heavy-duty visual metaphor for all of Hilly's, and the movie's, designs of sunshine and warm colors.)
I am not unaware of the countless films that have failed to render this historical/dramatic dynamic with nuance, in any way accurately, believably or effectively in the past, and I would not suggest that that The Help is flawless. Perhaps Hilly, the movie’s most virulent villain (who, as Owen Gleiberman accurately points out in his excellent response to the main criticisms of the film, sees herself as a liberal) is a character who is drawn too broadly (I don’t necessarily agree). And perhaps the movie arguably has a bit too much of a Lifetime-style sheen to it, perhaps benefiting from what passes in Hollywood or doses of realism. (This seems like an objection, again, to the fact that The Help is solidly, effectively crafted.) But even if true, these are, to my liberal do-gooder’s mind, trifling objections that are easily overshadowed by the essential clear-headedness of the movie’s melodramatic main thrust and the integrity of its performers.
It’s hard for me to reconcile my own white male-over 50-experience with The Help to the belief of someone like Matt Seitz, who writes that though the struggles of the black characters in the film are sensitively rendered, magnificently acted and sometimes heartbreaking, they are nonetheless “sideshows” to the movie’s main concern, the uplifting of the Skeeter character. I honestly don’t know how one could experience this movie, with the specific contributions that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer make to it, and come to that conclusion. When Aibileen heads down the road at the end of the movie, there is despair to go along with her burnished triumph. She has been fired and separated from the white child who she has come to love as her own, and the road which she heads down is paved with absolutely no assurances. It is a road that we know, if we are historically responsible and basically intelligent viewers, will offer no detours past another 40 years of struggle for women and men like Aibileen (and women and men completely unlike Aibileen who happen to be similarly pigmented). Yet Aibileen walks armed with the kind of character revelation, that she has talent as a writer, which promises greater things to come. Yes, though the skies are hardly absent clouds it is an uplifting conclusion, not because she is now liberated from her oppressive past—hardly—but because she has discovered, through the friendship and encouragement of someone whose experience couldn’t be further from her own, an outlet for expression of the anger and frustration and fear that has characterized her life up to this point. This may be a noble thing for a person like Skeeter to have had a hand in, but the movie ultimately celebrates not Skeeter for her efforts or newfound understanding so much as Aibileen for facing the perils of that road with the knowledge that she has the strength to live the rest of her life trying to make her own situation better.
And frankly, claiming that the fact that Skeeter is the character who “puts the plot into motion” somehow makes The Help first and foremost about her seems a bit like saying that North by Northwest, all evidence to the contrary, is really a picture primarily concerned with notorious smuggler Phillip Vandamm. From here it’s only a hop, skip and a very big leap to the implications that some made, in response to The Blind Side two years ago, that white people, especially if they’re confident/arrogant, fundamentalist Christians, have no business offering help or support to, and thus shifting focus away from, black characters in films, even if those most loudly objecting might very well applaud the very same actions in real life. One can easily imagine that if Hollywood decided to avoid the subject of bigotry and civil rights altogether, the same people who are complaining loudly about The Help would be wringing their hands over Hollywood’s refusal to tackle the indignities of America's racist past.
I wish I had the time and/or insight to offer as complete a rebuttal to the arguments against The Help as I feel compelled to do. But in the absence of that time, I offer you a link to Owen Gleiberman’s insightful consideration of the movie entitled, ”Is 'The Help' A Condescending Movie For White Liberals? Actually, The Real Condescension Is Calling It That”, in which he writes the following:
“The key to the film’s power, and its originality, is this: It’s a movie not about taking bold crusader’s stands — which, at this point, wouldn’t be a bold movie to make anyway — but about the low-key, day-to-day, highly ambivalent intimacy of black/white relationships in the Deep South.”
Think about that. While Ida E. Jones of the Association of Black Women Historians is busy knocking the movie as a “white coming-of-age story” with a lack of positive black male role models, one which “makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities, turning them into comic relief” (a statement so wrongheaded that it calls into question Ms. Jones’ ability to see what is directly in front of her), Gleiberman is recognizing that the value of preaching to the choir lies in showing them something that they may not have seen before. That is, something of the intimacy in the way that civility could bubble up beneath the cracks of oppression, a civility that does not cavalierly ignore, for the purposes of bad or misleading storytelling , the historical reality of how difficult it was to come to even such a modest sliver of understanding as that. What I don’t understand is the implication by critics like Jones and others that any movie which dares to set itself in the midst of every-day racial tension in Jackson, Mississippi in the mid-‘60s is somehow obligated to turn itself into a laundry list of horrors so that we can be assured the filmmakers aren’t being willfully ignorant of history and we can feel better about ourselves for not falling for the usual barrage of sentimentality. Maids routinely subjected to sexual assault at the hands of their white male employers? An undeniable historical fact. But to imply that this kind of abuse was an experience shared by every black woman who ever put on an apron for a white employer, one that demands to be included in any “serious” discussion of the way people interacted with each other during this time in order for the tale to have any integrity, is as suspicious as trotting out the prevailing Margaret Mitchell-inspired mythology to suggest that masters actually respected their slaves and treated them as if they were members of the family. And as for Jones’ assertion that The Help makes light of women’s fears and vulnerabilities, it only makes one wonder about the Association of Black Women Historians’ tolerance level for the oeuvre of Tyler Perry.
But for some even worse is the movie’s big set piece, and that it is a comic set piece to boot-- the consumption of what Minny calls the Terrible Awful, a chocolate pie presented by Minny to Hilly as an apparent act of contrition for having used the indoor toilet, itself a violation of racial propriety for which Minny is promptly fired. Minny’s moment of triumph, and Hilly’s spectacular comeuppance, is the crowd-pleasing highlight of the film, but many have objected to the extreme unlikelihood that a black maid in Minny’s position would have ever staged such a stunt for fear of immediate and possibly violent reprisal. This may be true. And one would not wish any movie to veer so violently away from history as to besmirch it and the memory of the people who lived through it, who caused it, who were changed by it. On the other hand, why can’t there be room in the telling of a generally responsible story of this sort, which is again essentially melodramatic and emotional in nature, for a bold gesture of defiance like this? What is wrong with the release of a kind of wish fulfillment revenge fantasy that finds a maid, fired for sitting down on a white man’s toilet, fashioning a pie made of her own shit which she then serves up to her monstrous ex-employer, who proceeds to gobble it down with great satisfaction… until the special recipe is revealed? When white girls Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker conspired to kill and cook Parker’s abusive husband and serve the corpse in a stew to their café customers in Fried Green Tomatoes, revenge was sold (and bought) as punishment that fit the crime. But when Minny serves up the most just of all desserts, we’re supposed to poo-poo the bad taste and shake our heads with disapproval over the historical improbability of the act? Sorry. Not when the triumphant Octavia Spencer commands the scene.
Finally, one aspect of The Help and its status as a massive movie hit and cultural event that has gone virtually uncommented on is its value for parents in helping to introduce their children to an examination of recent American history, to say nothing of encouraging them to appreciate movies (and actors) that are not entirely centered on superheroes or lightning-slinging wizards. My wife and I took both our daughters, ages 11 and 9, to see the film, but not before taking the opportunity to review with the older one, and familiarize the younger one with the historical context of the film. We explained to them the meaning of Jim Crow, the reality of segregation in the Deep South at the time, and the efforts of blacks and whites in the Civil Rights Movement who were working in dangerous conditions to better our world during the time in which the movie takes place. As an introduction to these concepts, The Help was not only valuable, but it was emotionally accessible in a way that engaged them more than a simple textbook-based classroom discussion ever could have. I told my oldest daughter, who entered middle school this fall, that she should remember what she saw in the movie when study of the period at school resumes for her in the next few years. And by the way, in suggesting its appropriateness for children I don’t mean to imply that The Help is simplistic in its portrayal of systemic racism crystallized to the very personal; quite the contrary, and as such I fully appreciate Gleiberman’s comparison of the film to the work of Robert Altman:
“It is… a sprawling ensemble piece that asks everyone in the audience — black and white, women and men — to identify with everyone on screen. That’s the way that Robert Altman’s films used to work. They were tough-minded spectacles of shifting empathy, and The Help, though it lacks Altman’s storytelling magic (it’s prose rather than poetry), isn’t so far removed in spirit from an Altman film. Every woman in it has her own way of looking at the world, and the movie wants you to understand how those viewpoints all jostle and mesh and collide.”
I’d like to think that a movie that presents different ways of seeing the world and how those perspectives once co-existed, some at the extreme expense of the others, might encourage my daughters, and other young people, and yes, even adults, to consider that the movies and popular culture can be kaleidoscopic instead of myopic, even in a broadly historical context such as the one The Help presents. And when they’re ready for Taylor Branch, maybe they’ll look back at The Help and think of it as an experience which both moved them and also helped prepare them for more incisive, critical thinking about the horrors and the glories of American history outside the realm of popular entertainment.
Further reading on The Help:
A statement from the Association of Black Women Historians
Superb rebuttals to criticism of The Help from Owen Gleiberman and, even more convincing, John McWorter , in which pieces by Nelson George and Valerie Boyd are linked to and discussed.
Andrew O’Hehir’s guide to the critical reaction, positive and negative, to The Help.
Matt Zoller Seitz