Monday, August 22, 2011

The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011)

The Help takes the obliviousness of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 hit novel and magnifies it to the level of the dangerously ignorant. The novel at least had the decency to include a modicum of ambiguity and the suggestion that Stockett could vaguely remember some of her 3rd-grade social studies lessons on the Civil Rights Era. The film, on the other hand, is erected out of pure fantasy, set in a plastic, pastel Jackson, Miss. that has all the authenticity of Lars von Trier's Dogville set. Stockett's novel dropped whiffs of the true reality of 1960s Jackson among her dialect-ridden, charmed view of social prejudice like talismans to ward off criticism, but childhood friend Tate Taylor has to condense 500 pages into two-and-a-half hours. Given the paper-thin characterization of the novel's figures, this means that the obliterated subplots and truncated, blunt dialogue serve to make the material even more farcical.

In fairness, Taylor does try to refashion Stockett's book around the African-American characters instead of a white guilt cipher. But this idea goes no farther than letting Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a maid who becomes the first to tell her stories of life serving whites, narrate the movie. Soon enough, focus is back on Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college grad and sort-of feminist who, despite no clear identity before leaving for school and a blindness to current events (at least in the book), decides to get the black perspective of Jackson life. In the novel, Skeeter is almost jaw-droppingly entitled and never criticized for it. Here, Taylor dispenses with nearly all of her story, which would be a significant improvement if he also cut down her screen time to match. But no, regardless of who had to go in to record ADR, this is still Skeeter's story.

Completely unaware of the risks of such an enterprise despite living in one of the hotbeds of the Civil Rights Movement, Skeeter puts the lives of maids in jeopardy just to please a scabrous New York Jewish elite editor—no commas because Taylor/Stockett seem to use each of these terms as if they all mean the same thing—named Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen, who somehow gives the most one-note performance in a film of unambiguous heroes and villains). For some reason, Stein is never shown sitting at her desk like a professional, instead lounging on the thing dangling her legs like a naughty secretary or brashly calling from a restaurant whilst devouring adoring younger men. Mocking the ivory tower insularity of the New England elites, both Stockett and Taylor have her flippantly telling Skeeter to hurry up and get the interviews she needs for a book "before this whole civil rights thing blows over."

The rest of the archetypes are spread out among dignified, frumpy sexless (yet child-inundated) maids and shrieking housewives who put a glossed look on racism so audiences don't have to be reminded that some of their parents (or even friends) used to beat and hang people for the color of their skin. This brigade of over-hairsprayed, overacting harridans is led by Hilly Holbrook, played by a Bryce Dallas Howard with such narrowed eyes there simply must be a gag reel of her walking into furniture by mistake. One never gets any clue as to why Skeeter was ever such close friends with her or Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), a lab-grown Betty Draper cloned with amphibian DNA to fill the sequence gaps. But then, Skeeter herself is such a blank slate for the author's guilt and wish fulfillment that presumably anyone could find something to project in her.

As for the maids, Aibileen is the chief representative, but she is also joined by Minny, de-sassed from her ludicrous novel form into someone who might conceivably have lived past the age of 13 in a town where lip from a black woman could equal jail time at best. Stockett wrote the character with her actor friend Octavia Spencer in mind, and Spencer plays the role here. Her bug eyes are their own punchline, always bulging in anticipation of reprisal when she can't keep her mouth shut and regarding any and all white people with disbelief, as if unable to comprehend just how ridiculous they are. Minny is the most anachronistic element in this story, modeled after a modern, no-nonsense black woman, but now that Spencer can say the lines instead of Stockett writing in loose dialect, she nearly makes the thin comic relief of the character work. She shares some organic laughs with Aibileen that work far better than the more staged comic pieces, precisely because these smaller, more intimate moments feel like conceivable gallows humor between two people suffering through the same endless torment.

Nevertheless, Minny's neutering makes her extraneous, and the already unnecessary side-plot with her airheaded but sweet new boss, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), only more distracting. I would venture to guess that Stockett intended Celia's character to comment on how much poor whites shared with blacks in their ostracizing from the realm of "classy" whites, but her depiction as a kindhearted, racially blind piece of "white trash" is antithetical to the true, vile nature of racism among poor, which is almost always more vicious for the jealousy and resentment of being in the same financial bracket as minorities. Having said that, Chastain gives as good a performance as the two black leads with her equally limited role: virtually unrecognizable from her turn earlier this year as the embodiment of human spirit in The Tree of Life, Chastain speaks with a squeaky hiss that sounds as if the air for her words came not from her lungs but wind blowing through the empty space between her ears and out her mouth and nostrils. She couldn't be any further from her other breakout role this year, and the sheer range she's shown within releases spaced apart by mere months is, one hopes, a sign of stardom to come.

Much talk has already circulated regarding the awards potential of Davis' performance, and it's true that she makes a startling presence. Confined by Stockett's conception of Aibileen as a loving maid who seemingly exists to raise and cheer up white babies, Davis nevertheless injects steel into the character. She's no more complex a character, but Davis' fearsome visage etches pain on this glorified Mammy figure. If anything, she conveys too much strength to be taken seriously as a humble, submissive domestic: there's more fire in her face than Spencer's. When one looks into those hardened eyes, however, one can also find humor and love, and if she has to play a maid who, in one way or another, always gives of herself to a white person, at least Davis makes that role almost believable on a human level.

I mention all these actresses because there are some genuinely solid performances here. While the Stepford women of Jackson shriek and scream and hiss, depicting racism as a matter of peer pressure instead of an endemic social ill, Spencer, Davis and Chastain elevate a film that doesn't deserve them. But not even they can distract from the shortcuts and stereotypes thrown at the screen for easy identification. Skeeter's mother, an imperious yet unchallenged force in the book, is here softened by Allison Janney. Taylor condenses the gradual progression of Charlotte's illness into a single line, and I must say that "My daughter's upset my cancerous ulcers!" is my favorite non-sequitur, crass exploitation of a terminal disease since "I got the results of the test back, I definitely have breast cancer." Skeeter too finds the shortest distance to her moral awakening, openly sniping Hilly from the start and eroding any plausibility of her supposedly close friendship with Jackson's resident witch. Skeeter's arc revolves around the mystery of what happened to her loving maid Constantine, who disappeared just before the young woman returned from college, and we're meant to track her moral development through this uncooked subplot that serves only to not-really drive a wedge between mother and daughter.

Constantine is the downfall of both the novel and the film. A repository for Stockett's idealized memories of her own maid, Demetrie, Constantine appears in flashbacks that reduce the woman to an utter fabrication, Aibileen without the tangibility. My mouth actually fell open in horror at seeing Cicely Tyson, an icon, simply appear to a teenage Skeeter, so rail-thin, shriveled and toothless that she resembled less a human being with her own life and story than a savior version of Baron Samedi. Constantine exists solely for beatification, despite how little say she gets in literary or cinematic form. All she does is buck up Skeeter, which Stockett interprets as true motherly love. Hilariously, she gave an interview in which she admitted that, when she spoke to white families that used to have a maid, they remembered the workers with fondness and love. But when it came to the maids, well, let's take a look: "When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for. That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job."

The interviewer, of course, didn't press this, but the question arises: did Demetrie truly love young Kathryn, who incidentally grew up in the '70s and '80s despite people passing this book off as autobiography? I would love to know if, at any moment, Stockett remotely entertained the possibility that the maid she has placed on a pedestal for raising her, for empathizing with her, really just viewed her as a job to make oppressive wages to feed her own children. I think that she did, in some dark recess of her mind, and the result is Constantine, a icon carved out of blessed wood that Stockett uses to chase such life-altering thoughts away like a broom to a raccoon. The resolution of Constantine's fate in the novel is overwrought, but it at least cast Skeeter's mother as a more accurate face of racism than the sparkle-bright young ladies of the Junior League, revealing how nearly three decades of service and invaluable contributions could not stop a white person from acting with cold impersonality. The film, however, recasts the revelation with regret on behalf of Charlotte, and she and Skeeter suffer no fallout or profound change for it. It's just there for another tearjerker in another film that makes so many intervallic leaps between cutesy comedy and shameless manipulation it feels like a bebopification of sentimentality.

And so, the film resolves itself for maximum audience pleasure: Hilly turns into a dozen crows that scatter into the winds, Muggles and wizards learn to live in harmony, and a baby named Barack raises his tiny, large-eared head in Hawaii and coos the word "Change." Stein, who exists to be a hard-ass to Skeeter (and an inconsistent one, first aware of the risks facing maids and then expecting more than a dozen interviews later), somehow lets Skeeter's book be released with the most hysterically dumb cover I've ever seen. The baby blue cover sports only a dove as its centerpiece, halfheartedly justified as being linked to the budding hippie movement. I just found it amusing that even the goddamned object on the book cover is white.

The Help, even in its semi-ambiguous novel form, cocoons open racism as a thing of the past. It doesn't say that racism is over, per se, but it clearly wants us to admire how far we've come. But when Jackson only recently found itself the subject of another high-profile case of race violence—in this case the murder of a black man by racist teens who shouted "White power!" as they beat him and ran over him in a truck—maybe we shouldn't be so aghast at how things "used" to be. But no, we are instead treated to the running joke of Minny's revenge against Hilly, a dastardly deed involving a pie and a mounting sense of dread, not in the reveal but in the dawning realization that this work really will sink so low for a laugh. Naturally, it works as a crowd-pleaser, but it is so insipidly dumb, Stockett writing herself out of the true conclusion to it (and the release of Skeeter's book itself) with the threat of mutually assured social destruction. But do you know how that story really ends? It doesn't end with Minny in prison where she can tell the world of Hilly: it ends with her being killed and her house firebombed. Those might not even be two separate actions. It ends with Aibileen not simply fired but completely stripped of what little she has and possibly the target of violence. It ends with Skeeter mostly likely being raped for being a race traitor and definitely with her family crippled economically. These are not pleasant endings, and I do not "want" to see them, at least in the sense that I would ever like to spend an evening seeing such sights. But if you're going to make a film about '60s Jackson, you should show the truth, not what will only unsettle audiences in the safest way possible.

So what, in the end, are we left with? A movie that hinges its biggest payoff on a flight of pure revisionist fantasy designed to make modern audiences feel good about themselves, complete with emotional moments that are, in almost every occurrence, tied to a black person helping a white. Whether it is Aibileen's insulting "You is kind, you is smart" speech to little Mae Mobley, the maids agreeing to speak after Hilly crosses the line (their assent delivered with a collective "mmm-hmm" that throbs through Aibileen's house like an A/C unit switching on), and finally the dénouement of the two supposedly lead black maids stopping everything to cheerlead Skeeter getting a job. This trivialization of the '60s has been defended for its nonsensical feel-good whimsy by those who feel validated for having a cry over these prop cutouts of suffering. But those looking for a genuinely inspiring story of overcoming hardships associated with the racial serfdom that persists today—a recent Pew Research Center release showed the median net worth of a white household at 20 times that of a black family—should read this account of a conversation the daughter of a maid had with the grown-up child of the family that employed her. It's heartbreaking, enraging, unexpectedly uplifting, defiantly confrontational, and it ends with a punchline that is not only earned but truly hilarious and vindicating. In other words, it's everything The Help isn't.


  1. "But if you're going to make a film about '60s Jackson, you should show the truth, not what will only unsettle audiences in the safest way possible."

    No. If YOU'RE going to make a film, YOU should show that if you want it. 'The Help' boils down to CRM fan-fiction, and you seem to be upset about it; it's as though any story of race in the 1960's mustn't leave any historical stone unturned or else it must be cowardly revisionism. It mustn't be told from a white perspective. It must presume people in 1960 have full hindsight knowledge of the times, perhaps because they traveled to the future and learned about them. Clearly Stockett isn't a great writer, and clearly she has a limited ability to flesh out what these maids were thinking. And of course this begets an even thinner screenplay - on that I don't disagree with you. But the disdain for Stockett's audacity to write a book from the perspective of a character that most resembles herself is ridiculous.

  2. Oh my, it's like you condensed every absurd knee-jerk defense into one contradictory post. I never said it shouldn't be from a white perspective; I am saying that the white perspective it offers is wafer-thin and DOES behave like someone with full hindsight. She undergoes no evolution, merely arriving back in Jackson openly sick of the racial divide and behaves as if there is no danger in different races mixing in a town where it is expressly illegal. She behaves like someone who traveled back in time and tried to change things without having a clue how things worked. If she actually DID behave like someone from that time period, her perspective might have been rewarding.

    And calling it CRM fan-fiction is the worst attempt at defense I've ever seen.

  3. I actually agree with Watcho, that Stockett would be more criticized if the story was about Aibileen or Minnie moreso than it was about Skeeter.

    I also don't agree on your perspective Chastian's character. I assume you'd know more about people like her character, I see her as a character with her own personal attitudes that shouldn't be justified instead of a representation of her race and class. I admit that she's a foil while the rich girls run the gamut between Hilly and Skeeter. Besides, I don't want people of the future to assume my racial beliefs because of what it says in my short form census info.

    We talked about the TNR piece earlier, and I think it's stupid that we have gone so far but we can't even talk about or show 'reality' less than fifty years after the fact. The film shows THAT women like Aibileen and Minnie have suffered. When it comes to topics like this, it's either we get extreme yet lousy choices of either this film or Addio Zio Tom, and my taste for 'realist art cinema' does have its bounds.

  4. I think she would have been criticized more too, but again, my point was never "How dare Stockett insert a white woman into this" but "Why is that white woman so out of place?"

    The problem with Chastain's character, like all the rest, is that she is too thin to pin down by anything other OTHER than race or class. We are obviously denied full access to her by virtue of our interactions being rooted in Minny's observations, but her kindness is offset by a clear instability (more so in the book) that makes it impossible to gauge her as a character. She's a fundamentally good person regardless of her wackiness, but I think Stockett is using her class background as ammunition for that goodness, which is where I hesitate.

    I don't think this needed to be a realist film, but you can do sentimentality and even the necessary historical rewrites for making a film and still have something fundamentally honest. Schindler's List comes to mind; that film has some big errors (cutting out Schindler's wife entirely despite her crucial role in saving Jews), but that film respects its subject matter even within its moments of pure sentiment and even suspense. The Help is just a whitewash; like you say, it shows THAT the women have suffered, but it demurs at showing HOW they did, and so it's spun more easily into a piece a fluff. There are incredibly clever moments, almost all of which play on the obliviousness of the rich girls, from Hilly's "There are some real racists out there!" to Elizabeth's inability to fathom, much less recognize her awful motherhood when she reads it. But these are small ironies in an ultimately unchallenging piece.

  5. I say that 'The Help' is fan-fiction more as a way of putting it into the proper perspective than defend its content; it's a piece that carries all the significance of someone fantasizing about Han and Leia's marriage. But because it traffics in this particular slice of recent history, there seems to be a desire to elevate its importance and potential, then vehemently rip it apart for not living up to that standard. It isn't aiming for timeless literature, it's aiming at selling copies a dozen-at-a-time to women's book clubs. It's an airport bookstore novel about maids, not a Phil Ochs record. Arguably its point is to get people talking about their own experiences, and it succeeds at that. As I say, on its own merits, it's a so-so book that made into a so-so movie that I normally wouldn't think twice about except that it appears to be greatly upsetting people outside of its target audience.

  6. Well now we're having a conversation. Still, I think you're framing the argument solely around commercial concerns, the idea that if the film performs well in its demographic that it's OK. You say "because it traffics in this particular slice of recent history, there seems to be a desire to elevate its importance and potential" as if you're surprised. Yes, the subject matter puts it under a microscope, but that's because it does matter. By rewriting history that many people can personally recall is going to bring criticism its way.

    We're not ripping it apart for failing to meet some lofty standard, or at least I'm not. I'm merely struck by just how much it simplifies to sell to those book clubs. Letting it off the hook solely because it's audience is "women's book clubs" is reductive in more ways than one and it doesn't spark a conversation so much as it does a conflict, as we've already seen between us. But when the book is a runaway bestseller and the actual experiences of former maids and children of maids are being brushed off as sensitive or even close-minded (as I have seen happen in response to such responses of actual experience), it naturally breeds resentment. For what it's worth, I think the book and the movie are genuinely bad on their own terms, not just because of their reception, in the same way I find The Da Vinci Code a hideously written book and oafish movie outside the considerable financial success of both. It perpetuates, unconsciously I will readily admit, a number of limiting tropes and types, and it's the obliviousness of it that gets me. Some people are calling it racist, which I think is wrong-headed because there's not a hint of malice in either Stockett's writing or Taylor's adaptation. It's just ignorant. By the same token, defending that ignorance for prompting actual experience to come to light strikes me as misguided, though I certainly value the stories that have come out directly in response to this work.

  7. 43t9fisldjfdsfqo9rg3August 23, 2011 at 12:46 AM

    Your first decent review, though I will never forgive you for slobbering all over Abrams, ever, but yes, this is a story from a white person about white people and like The Blind Side, it's consumed by white people pining for some feel good race masturbation. If you keep writing reviews like this though you'll never get hired by a newspaper so be careful, given how subservient you've been to the industry in the past I know what you want and this won't get you there.

  8. It's funny, 'The Help' made me think of 'The DaVinci Code' as well. That book was truly terrible, and the Dan Brown minions were happy to hold it up as being significant literature because at its core it asked very important questions about spiritual beliefs, which of course is total nonsense. I just don't get the sense from either medium of 'The Help' that that's going on. It's a relationship-driven story, not plot. Again, we agree that these relationships are pretty thin, as are the resulting products. It could have been better, sure. But does it rewrite history? Hardly. It enters a fictional book into the universe of 1960's bookstores and suggests that it has an impact that amounts to little more than scandalizing the local Junior League. I mean come on, Captain America can play fast-and-loose with the Nazis but 'The Help' undermines the CRM by rewriting history?

    And it's certainly better than 'The Blind Side.'

  9. I enjoyed your edgy, thought-provoking review. I haven't seen this movie, but in defense of the novel, I don't think it was ever intended to be some sort of ground breaking civil rights novel. It is deliberately told in 1st person perspective by a young white woman who has limited knowledge and insight about what's going on around her. When evaluated simply for what it is, I thought it was a good novel.

  10. Are any of you people from the South? I think not.