“This isn’t about me,” aspiring journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) assures housemaid Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) as they sit tensely together in Aibileen’s kitchen in early 1960s Jackson, Miss. By “this,” Skeeter means the book she’s hoping to compile from the testimonials of black housemaids—a book titled, like this movie and the Oprah-endorsed best-seller it’s based on, The Help (Dreamworks/Disney).
Skeeter—a brainy, ambitious white woman freshly graduated from Ole Miss—eventually convinces the skeptical Aibileen of her good faith, and together they produce an oral history scandalous enough to turn Jackson’s Junior League on its ear. But it’s never clear whether we, the audience, should believe Skeeter’s disclaimer or not, since the movie sort of is about her. The Help, written and directed by Tate Taylor from the novel by Kathryn Stockett, belongs to the Driving Miss Daisy tradition of feel-good fables about black-white relations in America, movies in which institutional racism takes a backseat to the personal enlightenment of one white character.
It’s hard to actively hate The Help, a movie so solicitous of the audience’s favor that it can’t help but win it some of the time. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are tremendous as the stolid Aibileen and her hot-tempered best friend and fellow housekeeper, Minny; these two women are funny, smart, and righteous, and every moment we spend in their company is a delight. Some of the smaller performances are quite fine, too, especially Jessica Chastain as a ditzy new arrival in town. There are several solid laughs, and at least two instances when I had to scramble for a tissue. But after awhile all this emotional dexterity starts to resemble emotional manipulation. The Help is a high-functioning tearjerker, but the catharsis it offers feels glib and insufficient, a Barbie Band-Aid on the still-raw wound of race relations in America.
Skeeter’s idea for the book begins to take shape when Minny’s employer, the bitchy queen bee Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) starts a campaign to pass a bill requiring separate “colored” bathrooms for houses with domestic help. When Minny defiantly uses her boss’s bathroom, Hilly summarily fires her, and Minny, after taking sly revenge, goes to work for Celia Foote (Chastain), a nouveau-riche newlywed whom Hilly has chosen as her sworn enemy.
While the white women of Jackson spar over social status, bridge clubs, and charity fundraisers, the town’s black maids, who are bused in each morning from the poorer side of town, struggle to make a living and send their children to school. A few characters, like Skeeter’s ailing mother (Allison Janney), are given a trajectory from racial obliviousness to semi-enlightenment, but for the most part, whites in this movie are either pure-of-heart crusaders or sneering bigots.
Similarly, some of the black characters (most notably Skeeter’s aged former nanny Constantine, played by a frail-looking Cicely Tyson) border on saintly stereotypes from a sentimental abolitionist-era novel. This moral Manichaeism makes for satisfying melodrama—in fact, one of the two scenes that made me cry involved the angelic Constantine. But it also lets the viewer off the hook by making racism seem like a quaint artifact of the days when there were openly racist Hillys bullying self-evidently blameless Constantines.
If The Help contained more moments in which Skeeter’s good will wasn’t enough—in which, despite her best intentions, she blundered by unintentionally patronizing one of her interview subjects and had to confront her own received ideas about race—contemporary viewers might recognize a moment we’ve actually lived through, rather than being encouraged to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come.
Then again, if glossily inspiring movies about African-American lives didn’t get made, would a different, more challenging kind get made in their place? Part of me wants to say that it’s fine for The Help, book and movie, to exist as a pop-cultural phenomenon. The story simplifies and reduces the civil rights movement, yes, but at least it’s about it.That’s not nothing given the insulated bubble in which most movies marketed at women take place (the blithely apolitical Eat Pray Love comes to mind). The Help raises the eternal question faced by minority groups who have to fight for space onscreen (that is to say, anyone but white men): Do we count ourselves glad to make any inroads we can, or do we demand rich, nuanced, subtle representations right from the start? I get the feeling that The Help’s reception will be sharply divided by that question—a division which may in itself be this movie’s most valuable contribution.