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.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice analysis. I fully agree with your point about how the makers of The Help try to create wish-fulfillment for everyone, but it's still hard to know how to respond to some, especially the African American viewers, who were appalled by the film's historical distortions, and the way the maids in the film must depend on a white journalist to give them a voice. What of the fact that Skeeter takes information for her column from Aibeleen without apparently even thinking of giving the woman credit? I confess that I did enjoy The Help, especially the acting of Davis, Spencer, and Stone, not to mention the skillful recreation of the period, but I've not been comfortable with my initial response. The Help is extremely rhetorical and manipulative, as you suggest when you write that Charlotte was "momentarily" the villain. The film couldn't allow her to be bad for very long, since she "redeems" herself when she tells off Hilly, but in the meantime Constantine has been banished for no more reason than societal peer pressure. The film is so quick to forgive Charlotte, but should it? When does feeling good become another form of insensitivity to suffering?

What appears problematic can be outright insidious, in this regard, as the film threatens to reduce decades of institutional racism to Mean Girls cattiness (as others have pointed out). I wonder how the movie will fare at the Oscars.

Jess said...

Terrific review! Very well argued reasons for liking and being disappointed in this film. I wholeheartedly agree. There were some points you make (about Cicely Tyson's dog-eyes) I hadn't thought about, but it makes complete sense why that scene didn't quite work for me. Good job.

Scott Nye said...

FilmDr. - Well, to be fair (and I'm even less fond of the picture than you), I'm not sure Skeeter was getting due credit for the column either. I came in a couple minutes late, but since everyone referred to it as the "Miss Myrna column," I gathered that Skeeter was writing under the pseudonym of an ongoing character.

Jason Bellamy said...

FilmDr:'s still hard to know how to respond to some, especially the African American viewers, who were appalled by the film's historical distortions, and the way the maids in the film must depend on a white journalist to give them a voice.

I wouldn't argue with anyone who finds the film's historical distortions appalling, provided their arguments at least reflected what The Help actually does (many of the ABWH's are off base, in my opinion). But I can't say I understand the objection over the black characters being dependent on Skeeter to give them a voice. First of all, the film would be creating a whole new historical distortion by implying that black maids had inroads with publishing companies. Secondly, while I'm as irritated by anyone at the very old trend of telling minority stories through a white character (whether it's The Help, or Last of the Mohicans, or Dances With Wolves, or To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.), I don't think any single instance is indefensible. Yes, there are white heroes here, but they are secondary to the two black maids, no matter what any screen time math might suggest. So in general principle I have no problem with this story being told from a mostly white perspective. I urge Hollywood to try to tell more of these stories through a black perspective, but I don't think The Help should be outlawed as some kind of cinematic affirmative action (not that you were implying it).

The film is so quick to forgive Charlotte, but should it? When does feeling good become another form of insensitivity to suffering?

The second question above is really the crux of the whole debate: is it possible to dip a toe into such serious material, and is it possible to have a good time taking on such a historically depressing subject. As I implied in my review, I don't think there's a great answer to that one. But as for Charlotte's forgiveness ...

At least the film is consistent. Personally, I find it annoying that everyone (except Hilly) gets a chance to hit a game winning homer in this movie, regardless of whether or not they "deserve" it. If one looks at this film as a symbol of (and tool for) healing, then I think Charlotte's redemption is justified as an attempt to collectively move on from the shameful past. But, again, I have no problem with people who can't move on or find it offensive that The Help implies that moving on should be so easy (which it accomplishes in part by suggesting that what we're moving on from wasn't so bad).

So, yeah, a problematic film.

Jason Bellamy said...

To anyone who has read my blog, this probably goes without saying, but let me pause here to say that I find The Help much less offensive than Gran Torino.

The underlying message of The Help is the right one: hatred sucks, treat everyone decently, etc. It oversimplifies that hatred and the struggle, no question, but it doesn't change the overall equation.

Gran Torino, on the other hand, doesn't reduce hatred, it tries to rewrite it, sneakily suggesting that, "Hey, when we called you 'nigger' it was just our way of being playful. That's just the way we are. And if you spent more time with us, you'd realize that."

In The Help, at least Charlotte plainly admits that she was wrong. She's let off the hook all too easily (although, to be fair, I think it's safe to assume that she'll always live with the guilt of her actions). But, to keep with the comparison, in Gran Torino we get repeated suggestions that the hateful behavior of whites, as embodied through Walt, wasn't hateful at all, or that if it was it was justified because of his service in the war, etc. And that's cowardly, in my opinion.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jess: Thanks! The scene with Cicely Tyson is so unfortunate, because you can tell that the filmmakers were trying to amplify the wrongness of Charlotte's actions. But the portrayal made me cringe.

Jason Bellamy said...

Scott: I gathered that Skeeter was writing under the pseudonym of an ongoing character.

Yep, she was. So, yeah, I didn't have a problem with Skeeter not giving the maids credit. Also, to do so would have been yet another anachronistic touch ... and there are plenty of them already.

Richard Bellamy said...

For better and worse, when it comes to feeling good, The Help simply can’t help itself. Yep, my feelings exactly. In my opinion, however, it's all for the worse.