Help, The (United States, 2011)February 03, 2012
Perhaps the greatest benefit offered by The Help is that it aids in remembering. Race relations have changed so radically in America over the last half-century that it's difficult for today's young to grasp how contentious and hate-filled things were, especially in the deep South, during the later years of Jim Crow. We have not achieved true racial harmony or equality in 2012, but the overt, ugly bigotry that permeated parts of society during the early 1960s has been largely vanquished. It still festers in the hearts and minds of some, often subtly, but it is now more a badge of shame than a code that must be followed for social acceptance.
It is said that Upstairs, Downstairs is a uniquely British story - it could not be set in any other country during any other time period. In a way, The Help is the United States' Upstairs, Downstairs. Race and class, while not inseparable, are closely aligned and, although the movie (like the book that inspired it) has a considerably wider goal than simply contrasting the lives of those in service with those who pay their wages, that's part and parcel of what The Help does. It illustrates a lifestyle that has all-but-vanished from the social landscape, swept away by the tide of the Civil Rights Movement. The Help is essentially a soap opera (as is Upstairs, Downstairs), but one that features some impeccable acting and evidences a social conscience.
In the early '60s in Jackson, Mississippi, one might think slavery was still in effect. The white women of society hire black women to raise their children and care for their houses, ruling over them with imperious attitudes and paying meager wages. Skeeter Phelen (Emma Stone) is a child of one such household. Her sickly mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), left Skeeter's nursing and upbringing to the care of a maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who became more of a mother to Skeeter than Charlotte. As an adult, Skeeter despairs of the attitudes embraced by friends like Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who want to enhance segregation rather than eliminate it. As a means to jump-start her writing career, Skeeter decides to write a book telling the life-stories of maids from their perspective, in their own words. She finds two willing participants - Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) - but others are reluctant, fearing reprisals if their participation becomes known. This all unfolds against the backdrop of the rising violence of the early Civil Rights Movement - the murder of Medgar Evers and the assassination of JFK.
The Help's most apparent flaw is a tendency to paint with broad strokes. With only a few exceptions, it avoids shades of gray. Characters are either unfailingly good - long-suffering black women and the white women who champion their causes, or irredeemably evil - high-society white women. The Help would have been more resonant had it created "real" characters rather than relying on stereotypes. Strong, passionate acting by the likes of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain overcomes a lot of flaws. Emma Stone has the thankless job of being The Help's central figure (whose character arc is, to say the least, limited), and does what she can with a thinly written role. Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly is so cartoonishly malevolent that, had she been a man, she would have twirled a long, black mustache.
The film's melodrama is designed to deliver a full-course meal, with moments of tragedy, humor, triumph, and catharsis wrapped in a "we shall overcome" blanket. It's good, audience-pleasing material that takes a few chances, but nothing so risky as to run the risk of alienating viewers. The PG-13 rating is an indication that, although The Help is willing to include a few borderline elements, its approach is predominantly vanilla. Some of the individual stories are of limited interest (Skeeter in particular, despite having the most screen time, is bland). Others, on the other hand, such as those of Aibileen and Minny, are genuinely affecting. The movie's most powerful moment comes at the end, through the tears of a child, and it italicizes the pain of change. The Help is never better than in its closing moments.
Unlike some book-to-movie adaptations, the journey of The Help from the written page to the screen was smooth. The film's director, Tate Taylor, is a longtime friend of the novel's author, Kathryn Stockett, and one of the primary actresses, Octavia Spencer, is close to both Taylor and Stockett. Stockett has acknowledged that Spencer was the inspiration for Minny, the character she plays. Taylor's version of The Help is about as faithful a movie iteration as one could expect. The Academy was duly impressed by The Help, in part because of its thematic content and in part because of the strength of its acting, honoring it with four nominations (Davis, Chastain, Spencer & Best Picture). That's high recognition for a movie whose dramatic content never quite lives up to its high ideals. The Help is engaging and occasionally a little heartbreaking, but it's neither an unqualified masterpiece nor a definitive depiction of the era or its struggles - much as was the case with Upstairs, Downstairs.
Help, The (United States, 2011)
Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Anna O'Reilly, Allison Janney, Cecily Tyson
Screenplay: Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett
Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures