8.17.2011

Review: The Help

Some people are calling The Help a lighthearted, feel-good movie. More virulent viewers are calling it a cesspool of white guilt, stereotypes, and liberal pandering.

I'm not sure we were watching the same movie. In my version of the film, I saw a touching and moving story about the culture of racism in the early 60s in Jackson, Mississippi, and the institution of middle-class "society" families using African American maids to raise their children and clean their homes, but won't allow them the dignity of using the indoor bathroom. It's a story told with humor, intelligence, and grace. It's as uplifting as it is infuriating, because while we're seeing a very ugly and shameful part of American culture, it has a sense of hope and optimism about it that not all humans are assholes, and that some people will prevail in a system that was built to beat them down. Sometimes we need to know that. 

If you want a cold and unflinching look at black poverty and oppression, watch Precious and then try not to slit your wrists afterward. 

There are many plots and subplots throughout the film, but the basic story is as follows: Skeeter (Emma Stone, who seems to be everywhere these days, and I'm perfectly fine with that), a peppy and non-conformist who refuses to settle down with a man and become a domestic goddess like her mother and friends, returns home after graduating from Ole Miss to get a job as a journalist. Of course, the only column offered to her is that of Miss Myrna, who I guess is the Dear Abby of house cleaning. To gain some perspective on domestic duties, she asks her high society friends if she can talk to their maids. She would have talked to her own, but she was disturbed to learn that her mother fired her while Skeeter was gone at school. This sad note later becomes a thematic turning point in the latter part of the film. 

One of Skeeter's friends reluctantly agrees to let Skeeter talk to her maid (so long as it doesn't interfere with the maid's work), and this is where Skeeter meets Abilene, the main maid of the story played by Viola Davis in a heartbreaking Oscar-caliber performance. Skeeter, perhaps because she managed to get a college education and escape the prejudiced systems of life in Jackson, is troubled by the undignified ways her friends treat "the help," particularly by Hilly, the racist high-falutin socialite queen of Jackson played so effectively by Bryce Dallas Howard that I'd happily hit her in the face with a pie if I saw her on the street. She decides she wants to interview as many maids as she can for a book that shows their perspectives as women who are forced to raise white children while their own kids live in poverty. 

What they're doing is risky and even technically illegal, and it's happening during the most volatile time of the Civil Rights Movement. A feeling of danger permeates through what they're doing, and although the film doesn't capitalize on this too heavily, I found myself to be kind of relieved about that. Like I said, such things belong in a different kind of movie. I loved these characters. I cared deeply for them. The last thing I wanted to see was something terrible happening to them because of some Drama Law that requires a character must die in a horrible way before we can finally give a damn. Death is not the only way to achieve a catharsis.

The script does suffer a tad from being overstuffed. There were some half-baked plot elements that should have been cut altogether, and which probably resulted from trying to remain too faithful to the book. However, that complaint is minor. The movie shines so much through its performances that a few dull spots here and there hardly matter. 

Movies like this have a tendency to make me want to be a better person. They ignite in me the fury I have against social injustice. The racism exhibited in this film isn't quite as loud and in our faces today, but it's still very much there, spoken in whispers and in code words. The Hillys of the world haven't gone anywhere. They've just learned to sing their tunes a little differently. White guilt, you say? Hell, I'd say we have a lot to be guilty about. 

Grade: A

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