Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"The Help" is Hardly Helpful

Watching "The Help" was a little like watching a good friend make a very well-intentioned, but embarrassing wedding speech, or getting a birthday present from them that is clearly more to their tastes than yours. You don't want to say anything, because they clearly meant well, and made a real effort. It could have been a lot worse – and you've seen a lot worse – and you want to accentuate the positive and encourage them in this new direction.

And oh, I really wanted "The Help" to be better than it was. I figured if the black maids in the film were the title characters, surely than meant they wouldn't get shunted off into supporting roles or turned into saintly caricatures like they have been in so many other films. And here, I have to give the filmmakers credit. Abilene (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) are full, wonderful characters who get as much time and attention as anyone else onscreen. Nobody swoops in to save them from the injustices they suffer. They take their own risks and fight their own fights. Davis and Spencer get to deliver a pair of great, enjoyable performances.

Unfortunately, "The Help" is also just as much about Skeeter (Emma Stone), the young writer who has just graduated from university, and is trying to break out of the domestic conformity of her social circle. And it's about Celia (Jessica Chastain), who is new in town, and has unwittingly crossed the local queen bee, Hilly Holbrook (a deliciously nasty Bryce Dallas Howard) by marrying her former beau. These two young white women, portrayed as lovable misfits for not fitting in and treating the black women as their equals, are utter fantasy creations. Stone and Chastain are both excellent, but their characters ring incredibly false. Are we really expected to buy a pair of white women from this time period having such enlightened, modern attitudes toward the maids, with none of the institutional biases or prejudices that we might expect?

I want to emphasize at this point that "The Help" is based on a fictional book, perhaps inspired by a few real life stories, but the entire device of Skeeter getting a group of black maids to spill their secrets about their employers and them publish them is a total invention. It sets itself up quite nicely with a lot of choice historical details to be mistaken for something closer to reality than it actually is. Frankly, I think that only a white writer would have come up with a plot like this. The whole thing has a sort of "Mean Girls" immaturity to it, having the progressive white women and the unappreciated black women band together to take down Miss Hilly Holbrook and her passel of racist sycophants. And they do it through the common language of all women: gossip. That way everyone, no matter their background, can feel good about seeing a blow struck against the establishment, right?

The problem with this is that the stakes are so much higher for the black characters than the white ones. Abilene and Minny risk their livelihoods and their lives in speaking out, a fact that is thankfully acknowledged in "The Help," but not emphasized nearly strongly enough. What do Skeeter and Celia risk? Social disapproval, mostly. Skeeter wanting a career instead of marriage may be a major break from the norm in the 1960s, but she's protected by her race and status from any really terrible consequences. Abilene and Minny are not. So despite the film's attempts to find parallels, there's no way to make Skeeter's struggle anywhere near equivalent to what the black characters go through.

"The Help" ends up feeling like a very sanitized, bowdlerized piece of historical fiction. The black maids still end up coming across as idealized and pigeonholed. In "The Help," they are natural housekeepers and nannies who reciprocate the sentimental, loving feelings that their charges are shown to develop toward them. Perhaps the oddest thing about "The Help" is the way that it tries to romanticize these relationships between the white children and their black caregivers. It's what drives Skeeter to write her book, and it's an influence on Abilene's actions as well.

Fighting together against a common enemy as the basis of friendships between black and white women is something I can understand. At the very least, it's still relevant. But the outdated nanny and child relationship, born out of privilege and inherent inequality? Really? Oh Hollywood, I know you're trying, but you have to do better than this.

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