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In his first major studio production, The Help, writer-director Tate Taylor enters a minefield of sociological, historical and artistic booby traps. The setting is 1963 Jackson, Mississippi, where racial tensions simmer between African-American maids and their white employers at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Through cruel words and haughty gestures privileged white women communicate disdain for their black help while the maids seethe at the casual insults delivered almost daily.
Taylor does capture the Jim Crow era and its anxieties well, but his characters tend toward the facile and his white heroine is too idealized. The film also seems as if it were made in a void of cinematic ignorance, as if no motion picture of that or any other era ever tackled this topic. Consequently, there is almost nothing new here that filmmakers, novelists and historians haven’t picked over years ago. Indeed Jackson, Mississippi, along with Selma, Alabama, is still struggling to overcome being a geographic byword for Southern resistance to civil rights and human dignity.
Where The Help succeeds magnificently though is in character portraits by actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. They play maids who agree to tell their stories to a young white journalist, “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who means to write a book to demonstrate that racism doesn’t just mean denial of education and voting rights.
Davis’ Aibileen Clark is the epitome of deferential politeness with a “m’am” at the end of every utterance. Yet her eyes speak volumes about the pain and anger she feels. She embodies the strange contradiction experienced by many a black maid or nanny who suffers abuse at the hands of white employers yet has lavished boundless love and devotion on the 17 white children she has raised. However, bitterness has crept into her soul since the death of her beloved son.
Meanwhile Spencer’s scrappy Minny Jackson, Aibileen’s best friend and the best cook in the county, provides not only comic relief but a feistiness that shows that some maids found the gumption andmeans to get back at overbearing employers. Hers is a great character, the antithesis of Gone With the Wind’s Mammy, and she nearly upends this movie with her righteous sass.
The film, based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, takes place in the world of Southern women. The white men may rule the world but not their own households so they are deliberately marginalized here. The chauvinism they display toward their wives or girlfriends sets up a chain reaction where the white women take their own insecurities and inadequacies out on the black help.
This is all well and good up to a point, but Taylor verges uncomfortably into cliché when he insists all wisdom and long-suffering nobility resides within the black nannies while the Southern belles of the country-club set are either witches, such as Bryce Dallas Howard’s impossibly villainous Hilly Holbrook, or weak-minded go-alongers such as Allison Janney’s Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s mother, who cannot stand up to Hilly’s bullying.
Another female character who starts off like a cliché, Jessica Chastain’s dumb blonde Celia Foote, blossoms into an accidental heroine, a social outsider in Jackson whose homemaking conspiracies with maid Minny demonstrate that some white Southerners were color-blind even then.
Ditto that for Sissy Spacek’s dotty, hard drinking old lady although at times she seems like a refugee from a minor Tennessee Williams play. Which leaves the problem of the film’s actual protagonist.
With a name like Skeeter, you can expect this 22-year-old to be a rebel and troublemaker. Nothing accounts for her color-blindness other that she is right-minded —and a writer. For, naturally, a novelist would assume a fellow writer is above such pettiness as racism and class snobbery.
Stone is one of our very best young actresses and she acquits herself well in this role. She makes you imagine that this might be how Scout from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird might have turned out had she become a journalist: Too inquisitive, sensitive and empathetic not to brush aside the common wisdom of the day to see eternal truths about human beings.
There are small moments in the film though that make you long for a movie that is not so deep-dish serious and self-conscious, a contemporary movie that could take advantage of the viewpoint of a half century to look at the past with a kind of cock-eyed grace such as Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven or even the TV series Mad Men. These moments come when you see a maid absurdly vacuuming a large stuffed bear or when one opines: “Love and hate are two horns on the same goat.” Now that’s the spirit!
But, no, the film falls too much in love with its vintage cars, period hairdos, quaint customs and ubiquitous cigarettes. It lingers a tad too long on the Colored Only signs and Confederate flags. It makes its points with set design and camera movements rather than fully explore the never-ending puzzlement of human malice and ignorance.
Opens: August 10 (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Production companies: Touchstone Pictures and DreamWorks in association with Participant present a Reliance Big Entertainment/Imagenation Abu DabiFZ/1492 Pictures production
Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, Jessica Chastain, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, Mike Vogal, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Aunjanue Ellis
Director/screenwriter: Tate Taylor
Based on the novel by: Kathryn Stockett
Producers: Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Brunson Green
Executive producers: Jennifer Blum, Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouel, Nate Berkus, L. Dean Jones Jr., John Norris, Mark Radcliffe, Jeff Skoll, Tate Taylor
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Hughes Winborne
PG-13 rating, 146 minutes
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