Saturday, September 17, 2011
Come On, Everybody! Clap Your Hands!: The Help
The villain in The Help, a film that one way or another is about racial inequality in the American South circa 1963, is a young woman of means named Hilly Holbrook. Played by the fare-skinned, redheaded Bryce Dallas Howard, Hilly is raging racist and an equal opportunity bigot. She refuses to share a toilet with her black maid. She shuns her ex-boyfriend’s wife for being white trash. And when Hilly’s mother dares to laugh in her direction, Hilly ships Mom off to an old-folks home as punishment. Hilly is a bitch to the extreme, and a monster, too. And so when Hilly gets into her car and speeds over to the house of the film’s free-thinking, compassionate white heroine in order to confront and threaten her, you might expect that Hilly’s journey would be accompanied by an ominous tune in the spirit of the “Imperial March.” Instead, the music on the soundtrack is Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again,” joyfully upbeat and playful. If you want a clue as to the spirit with which writer-director Tate Taylor approaches his material, based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, look no further. The Help never avoids that there is evil in this world, but at no point does it allow a shadow of despair to ruin its sunny, redemptive outlook.
Given the film’s setting and subject matter, this is a precarious position from which to operate, and, not surprisingly, The Help has been the target of scorn from those who feel it overly sanitizes the very hatred it’s attempting to rebuke. In a wide-ranging condemnation of both the film and the novel, The Association of Black Women Historians point out that for all of Hilly’s unblinking villainy, The Help suggests the grimmest hardships a black woman encountered in the Jim Crow South were tongue-lashings, humiliation and potential unemployment – not physical and often sexual abuse, or even death. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan is never even name-dropped in The Help, and the white men of the town are largely absent or passive. On the flipside, however, the film’s supporters can’t help but notice that, sanitized though The Help may be, there’s no doubt about its stance against hatred in general and racism specifically. And while the ABWH suggests that the film “reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it,” in fact the opposite is true. The Help makes it clear that, contrary to the myth, the "Mammy" had more in common with the plantation cotton picker than with Alice on The Brady Bunch, thus mostly demystifying the old stereotype. What's really at issue, then, is whether it’s acceptable for a dramatic film to portray the Jim Crow South and have a good time doing it.
It's a question with no easy answer. To make a blanket rule against it would be simple-minded, and indeed many smart comedies make their hay by taking on sensitive subjects with verve (think South Park). But dramas are different (even when they’re quasi-comedies). Attack the subject matter with the thirst for misery often typified by Lars von Trier and a filmmaker risks alienating the potential audience. Sprinkle marshmallows into the cereal bowl and the filmmaker risks offending those who think the subject matter is too severe, too adult, too important to be dished out with any hint of sweetness. The Holocaust and America's shameful history of dehumanization and abuse of blacks (among other non-whites) are two subjects that usually get approached with caution for good reason. But despite the reservations of the ABWH, The Help is less reflective of our feelings and collective memory of America’s embarrassing past than it is reflective of our life-affirming present. Although The Help isn’t technically attached to the culture icon, it’s straight outta the church of Oprah Winfrey: female focused, preaching personal control of one's fate, praising dignity amidst despair and implying that evil can be overcome simply by confronting it, all while refusing to recognize that not everyone who does the right thing is blessed with good fortune.
The central (white) character of this film is Emma Stone’s Skeeter. She’s smart, ambitious and curious about the world around her. She’s composed, brave and compassionate. She’s independent, career-driven, indifferent to men and clueless about what used to be called “women’s work,” namely cooking and cleaning. Skeeter is then, simply put, a role model for these times, and thus she’s a symbol of the kind of person we hope we would’ve been if we’d grown up in those times. By transporting a modern worldview into the past like Marty McFly leaping back to 1955, Skeeter isn’t a reflection of the Jim Crow South but our tour guide through it. She allows us to roll our eyes at Hilly’s hateful histrionics, which even in light of our not entirely harmonious present seem as outdated as the belief that the world is flat. And Skeeter takes us behind the service curtain into the lives of the black “help,” so that we might all feel, even slightly, the depth and breadth of the gulf that existed between these two worlds, despite any outward appearance of integration.
It’s in this latter world that we meet the two characters who provide the film’s heart and soul, Viola Davis’ Aibileen and Octavia Spencer’s Minny. Black maids both, Aibileen and Minny respond to their mistreatment in opposing ways: Aibileen internalizes and endures, while Minny lashes out. Like Skeeter, they are each modern role models in their own right: Aibileen is a portrait of composure, while Minny fights for the rights she deserves, damn the consequences. Their actions don’t always reflect historical reality, but, rightly or wrongly, they’re not meant to. The Help has been criticized as a film designed to make white people feel better about themselves (making X-rated horror into a G-rated cartoon and inviting white folk to pat themselves on the back for having less in common with Hilly than with Yosemite Sam), but the truth is that The Help is designed to be wish fulfilment for all of us. The scene in which Minny enacts her scatological revenge on Hilly is sophomoric to begin with and overlong to boot (by the time it’s worn out its welcome it’s only halfway through), and, yeah, it’s historically dubious, but it serves the same functional purpose as the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in which Hitler’s head is practically blown off his shoulders by machinegun fire: it confirms our modern desire to see haters and harmers receive their just due.
Where The Help is truly objectionable isn’t when it fails to portray our shameful history but when it accidentally reflects it. In a flashback late in the film we watch as Skeeter’s mom, Charlotte (Allison Janney), fires their long-time maid and de facto nanny Constantine (Cicely Tyson) rather than treat her like a member of the family in front of the community’s white establishment. The scene is designed to make Charlotte into a villain, albeit momentarily, and to make painfully clear that black maids in the Jim Crow South were always expendable accessories, never actual family members – and indeed the scene accomplishes all of that. And yet when Constantine is pulled away from the front porch by her daughter and looks back through the screen door at Charlotte with a longing, heartbroken and utterly confused expression on her face, it’s hard to ignore the way the composition equates Constantine to a family dog – blind in her loyalty and confused by the complexities of human interactions. The Help doesn’t mean to offend here, or anywhere, but such is the inherent problem of simplifying a complex (and sensitive) subject.
Thus it’s of no surprise that the film’s proudest moment is problematic, too. When Aibileen stands up to oppression and accepts unemployment over further degradation, our hearts swell with pride even while our heads tell us that Aibileen should be looking over her shoulder for the KKK on her walk home; yet, again, The Help is about confirming our morals in the present more so than it’s about staying true to the past. Davis infuses Aibileen with so much strength and hard-earned dignity that it’s virtually impossible not to cheer her triumph, historically problematic though it is. Dramatically speaking, The Help would have been better off allowing Aibileen’s moment of bravery to have the spotlight for itself, but instead Tate hands out similar episodes of victory and redemption like Oprah giving away cars: “You get a moment of triumph! And you get a moment of triumph! And you get a moment of triumph!” By the end of the picture, only Hilly is left to hate. Then again, if you’re going to engage in wish fulfilment, why not go all the way? For better and worse, when it comes to feeling good, The Help simply can’t help itself.