THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis are The Help.
Looking back now, it's mind-boggling to think that there was a time in this country when African-Americans couldn't use the same water fountains or restrooms as white people – and even more mind-boggling to realize that it wasn't all that long ago. Of course, racism and prejudice still exist, but at least we've moved beyond such blatant, nonsensical discrimination. The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel, takes us back to a time before we wised up. Despite a few stray moments that ring false, this is an intellectually engaging, emotionally satisfying drama.
Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, an aspiring writer living in Jackson, Mississippi during the early days of the civil rights movement. Having graduated from college and therefore armed with some newly-acquired worldliness, she is appalled by the treatment of the local black maids by some of her friends and acquaintances. The most egregious offender in her circle is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a young socialite advocating for legislation that would require while families to supply separate bathrooms for their black household staff. (She believes whites will contract diseases from sharing toilet seats with blacks.) Skeeter gets the idea to write a book about the experiences of these women. To start, she convinces Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) to talk, not just about the many injustices but also about what it's like to be responsible for the day-to-day care of someone else's children. Aibileen's initial reluctance fades as she becomes mired in increasingly poor treatment from her own employer. She then convinces fellow maid Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) to talk to Skeeter as well. Minny is angry by nature, and eager to settle a score against Hilly. Speaking up is perilous, of course, so Skeeter writes everything anonymously. Eventually, other women also come forward to speak. When published, her book does not sit well with many of Jackson's residents.
The Help deals with a number of issues, perhaps none so compelling as the strange, inconsistent position of maids in the hierarchy of Southern houses during the 1960s. White couples hired black maids to perform intimate duties such as raising their children, but didn't allow them simple basics, like using the bathroom in the homes in which they worked. The maids were often dismissed arbitrarily, for the most mundane of reasons. These dismissals created strife in the children, who routinely became deeply bonded with the women who raised them. (Skeeter struggles to deal with her own mother's casual firing of the maid who raised her.) At the same time, many of these children grew up to have maids of their own, and treated them with the same callousness that their parents did. In at least a dozen or two little scenes, the movie looks at these things, showing us the sad reality of a situation in which people were simultaneously assigned prominent tasks and treated in a sub-par manner. That makes it extraordinarily compelling. One can scarcely comprehend the rationale behind this, but we know it to be accurate.
The performances are wonderful. In order for the movie to work, we have to feel authenticity. The lead actresses deliver on that count. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are Oscar-worthy as the maids. Both play fully-developed, complex characters. We sense their hurt, their sublimated anger and, most importantly, their humanity. They put up with poor treatment because they have few options. When Skeeter comes along to write a book, a new option emerges, and we see how they come to understand its life-changing potential. Spencer is a real revelation. You've seen her before, typically in bit parts that require her to act with extreme goofiness, e.g. the “pet psychic” in Dinner For Schmucks. For the first time, she gets to have a multi-dimensional dramatic role, and she nails it. Emma Stone is terrific too, playing the idealistic heart of the story. Skeeter represents the idea of enlightenment, that some white people were starting to recognize that the situation was unjust. Stone conveys that without ever tipping over into the realm of becoming didactic. And Bryce Dallas Howard does the best work of her career as Hilly, a woman whose prejudice is so engrained in her that she quite simply believes her viewpoint is indisputably “right.”
In addition to the fine performances, I could cite a lot of other qualities The Help has, including a strong script and sensitive direction from Tate Taylor. But I want to focus on something else, something that, for me, really made the movie stand out. I've long been bothered by the fact that films in which black characters overcome obstacles are usually told from the perspective of a noble white person. Many of these movies – including the inexplicably popular The Blind Side - make it seem as though the African-American characters would be nowhere were it not for the kindly white folks so generously offering their charity. It's bunk, and it annoys me when I see it. The Help initially appears as though it will go down that same road, yet thankfully it doesn't. The focus is not so much on Skeeter giving these women the opportunity to have a voice as it is on the fact that they are brave enough to speak in that voice. The story makes it quite clear that they have a lot to lose by telling their stories – their jobs, their freedom, or even their lives. Jim Crow laws, coupled with basic racism, made it dangerous for black people to speak up. In doing just that, Aibileen and Minny take responsibility for their own destiny. They see an opportunity in Skeeter's project, one that will reveal the truth. I found it immensely satisfying that these particular movie characters are not dependent on a white woman; they are courageous enough to make themselves vulnerable because they believe it is right.
I think The Help is a safe movie, but that's generally okay. It shows you the truth of the situation, although it shies away from investigating the deeper psychological roots of prejudice, the way something like Do the Right Thing did. The movie is designed to be a crowd-pleaser. That leads to a few clunky moments. For example, Hilly is set up to have multiple come-comeuppances. One might have felt justified, but three or four seem a tad manipulative.
Those little flaws don't detract too much, though, because the film is very strong as a whole. When all is said and done, The Help is really about the value of dignity. Aibileen and Minny have it all along; their white employers simply refuse to acknowledge it. Through their struggles, they realize that dignity unseen only perpetuates the problem, and so they decide to make it seen by telling their stories. Watching them make this journey provides a powerful, uplifting moviegoing experience.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Help is rated PG-13 for some thematic material. The running time is 2 hours and 26 minutes.