True Colors: The Help registers a resounding success with powerhouse performances and an uncluttered storyline.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
There are the movie-movie pleasures of The Help, the stuff of simple cinematic entertainment, the stuff we go to the movies for. The magnificent performances. The fresh narrative. The unsentimental direction that lets you feel your own emotions instead dictating them to you. These things aren’t all that hard to do, and yet their rarity – particularly all in one film! – means we should cheer all the harder when we find them.
In other words, see this movie! As straightforward, Hollywood-glossy storytelling-for-your-enjoyment goes, The Help is a breathtaking success.
But there are other things at play, too: the politics of Hollywood, in which race and gender aren’t a factor unless the race isn’t white and the gender isn’t male. Then a story must be ghettoized, shuffled aside, considered to not really “count.” It’s “only” about women. It’s “only” about black people. F. That. S. The Help says, “F that s,” too.
The story it tells happens to feature white women and black women, and nary a man in sight, but the feeling it wants to leave you with is universal. It’s hard to be brave, to buck convention and to defy your peers. Paranoia and bigotry aren’t logical. Culture can be toxic. Everyone is a product of their circumstances, it’s what you do with yourself… blah, blah, blah.
Those are good messages. But there’s nothing of the chick-flick ghetto here. If movies that are all men and no women can be universal, so can this one. This is The Shawshank Redemption.
The crushing institutionalization here is racism, and it is brutal. It’s almost hard to believe that people actually lived as we see here: never mind “silver polishing day,” the disdain for anyone of less than a pale peachy skin tone is so accepted that human beings insult other human beings to their faces in horrific ways, while also taking such overt advantage of them. Surely Hilly Holbrook, the belle of early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, will go down as one of the great cinematic villains – Bryce Dallas Howard has a ball with her wickedness – a woman who can proudly announce that she has drafted legislation that requires white homes to have separate bathrooms for the black help.
She cannot abide setting her delicate hinder on a toilet seat that a black butt has touched. Diseases. Germs. Who knows what else? Yet she willingly, even happily, eats food cooked by her black maid Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer, showing off wonderful dramatic chops). “Mean for sport,” she bullies her friend Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly) into installing a separate toilet for her maid, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, so exquisite it makes me want to cry ), yet Elizabeth leaves her children for the maid to raise.
The hypocrisy of these women, which they seem incapable of recognizing in themselves, is shocking yet not at all implausible. It’s horrific in a different way, too, because it becomes a symbol of how constrained the white women are as well by their culture. Children aren’t beloved; they’re status symbols. Acceptance by queen bees such as Hilly Holbrook is a must if one is to “thrive,” if only in tightly limited ways, in this environment. Ostracization is a nightmare, as we see via Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who crossed the queen bee and now is excluded from what little society Jackson has to offer.
There’s no excusing these women their cruelty and bigotry; there’s just a context for it not often explored on film. It may look easy to be a wealthy housewife, but it can channel the human energy of women into narrow places. And as The Help – based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett – peels back the unexpected lives of wealthy white women, it does the same thing for the poor black women, when Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, on fire with indignation and rage) returns home from college, eager to be a journalist, and gives herself the task of interviewing the maids.
The stories we hear from the maids aren’t necessarily surprising, but what’s notable is their stories are being told, and heard, at all. Not just in the racist 1960s South, but also in the supposedly more enlightened 21st century. There isn’t a note of self-congratulation to The Help because there can’t be: Writer-director Tate Taylor knows we have a long way to go when it comes to valuing the stories of anyone not white and male. And that’s not the way it should be.
THE HELP (4) Directed By Tate Taylor • Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer •Rated PG-13 • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.