Friday, September 9, 2011

The Help Movie Review: Subtlety Is not its Strong Point

The Help, written and directed by Tate Taylor and based on the popular best seller by Kathryn Stockett, is a do-gooder drama that thinks it’s treating important subject matter with great care, but actually does a horrible disservice to history, the Civil Rights Movement, and all the people who played a role (many of whom game their lives) in it. That said, it’s worth noting that there is a huge disparity between the kind of film Dreamworks has chosen to advertise with the trailers and the actual film that Taylor made.

The adverts would have us think The Help is a comedy with some dramatic elements, treating Jackson, Mississippi, cerca 1963 as a hotbed of sassy black women and comical white racists. I was genuinely surprised to find that it’s not until the final 30 minutes or so of this overlong 140 minute film that it devolves into cheap laughs. As a matter of fact, the bulk of the film is built on a foundation of real drama, mostly provided by the astounding performances of Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, and Cicely Tyson.

Spencer and Daivs play good friends Minny Jackson and Aibileen Clark, both of whom work as maids for rich white families. Part of their jobs entails looking after the children of their employers, who are too often too busy know the first thing about their own children. Minny has children of her own to tend to where she lives across town in the black neighborhood. Aibileen’s only son died several years prior. Minny’s problem is that she has trouble keeping her mouth shut. This gets her into trouble and leads to her being fired by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who then spreads the lie throughout the community that Minny is a thief so no one will hire her.

Aibileen’s problem, if she has one, is that she’s too reticent to speak up for herself or for the little girl she cares for and loves as if she were her own child. The girl’s mother, Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly) cares more about her societal status and personal looks than about even saying good morning to her daughter. Of course Aibileen is not in a position to say anything about this, and so she suffers in silence as she watches little Mae Mobley until she becomes a younger version of her own mother and repeats the cycle.

We know this cycle didn’t exactly continue as such and that is due to the bravery of those who fought for civil rights in the South, people who this narrative all but leaves out, with the exception of a hat tip to Medgar Evers’ murder, so as not to stray too far into Serious Subject Matter and risk offending or alienating part of the audience. The Help is about a first step in the direction of achieving civil rights. However, the agent of change is not the goodly and righteous black women who clean house, cook food, and listen to subtly racist jabs all day. No, the hero, the woman who sets the plot in motion is the young white ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone), a budding journalist who decides to write a book from the maids’ point of view. Getting them to speak candidly is the tricky part.

Thankfully, Hilly organizes community support for an initiative that would require all homes to have separate toilet facilities for black maids, as they wouldn’t want their germs (which are different from white people’s according to some) infecting their precious lily-white bottoms. This is just the kind of injustice that causes the oppressed to rise up. Never mind that separate toilets for women like Minny and Aibileen would have been just one more in a series of degrading humiliations they would have endured their whole lives. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t born because of one particular change that happened. It was the culmination of many different factors, including increased power and solidarity in the black community. Rosa Parks’ defiant moment on a bus didn’t occur right after “separate, but equal” became law. It took years of suffering for her to make her stand.

But movies operate on a condensed time scale. We all know that. How humiliating are their separate toilets, you ask? Well, Aibileen’s is a wooden box that soaks up the sweltering summer heat. Minny’s can only be accessed by traversing the outdoor patio, which has flying furniture during a tornado one day, which leads to her sneaking into Hilly’s own bathroom. So you can see why they just had to decide at this moment to speak out to Skeeter.

Perhaps what stings most about a movie like this is how tastefully and, yes, at times artfully, it handles the material, but then completely fails the legacy. This is a movie that might have us believe that civil rights were achieved in the South without frequent beatings, threats, arrests and lynchings. Hilly is a noxious racist drawn with broad strokes. Here is where Taylor blows his best opportunity to do something substantial. By making Hilly so cartoonish, he closes his screenplay off to the possibility that some people somewhere might see something of themselves in her and through such recognition, question their own attitudes and beliefs. As such, Hilly offers nothing but cheap mouth-gaping moments. One saving grace is the continued presence of Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte (an as always brilliant Allison Janney), whose bigotry is more subtle than we tend to find in do-gooder movies. But the goodwill borne by the unconventional writing of her character is tossed away to score some cheap points when she makes a firm stand against Hilly late in the film.

Thankfully, his treatment of the black characters (presumably taking his cues from Stockett’s novel) is much more subtle. Aibileen and Minny, with their family problems and desire to simply get by in the world, are great characters and Davis and Spencer show off some acting chops that put just about every other actor in this film to shame. The writing of Tyson’s character Constantine, Skeeter’s family maid who ostensibly raised her, contains some troubling caricatures. She’s always got a wise aphorism prepared to help Skeeter in a tough situation. There’s an extent to which we might believe this was done on purpose, as Constantine’s presence in the film is all in flashbacks from Skeeter’s perspective. But there’s little else in the screenplay to suggest that Taylor is clever enough to have a commentary as subtle as that to hint that even the most morally righteous white character views her black subjects as the embodiment of racial stereotypes.

The one interesting plot element is the way the character of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) turns the stereotyping of white trash on its head. Celia is reviled and rejected by the Jackson upper crust because of her lowly roots. That she married into a Society family is of little importance. While Aibileen and Minny are satisfied with who they are and what they do, Celia is the one character passing for something she is not. That she is also seemingly bereft of racial bigotry is possibly a nod toward the common Hollywood trope of the redneck or white trash characters being the most virulent racists.

Ultimately what starts out fairly strong, regresses to a series of ill-placed pratfalls, sight gags and a general mess of misplaced comedy. It feels to some extent like it’s trying desperately to satisfy the expectations laid out by the film’s advertising campaign and fulfill the basest audience members’ desire for laughs. I was genuinely surprised by how much better the first three quarters of the film was than I expected, but supremely disappointed by its weak-kneed finishing touches.

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