The Help, a drama that takes place in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, is yet another of Hollywood’s curiously tangled efforts to invite a paying audience to congratulate itself for not being racists.
Is it really that simple? Yes, it really is, and it’s easy to imagine left-wing black viewers reacting with a certain amount of astonishment as they realize that all of the travails of a group of black maids suffering from prejudice in the Deep South are supposed to be balanced out by the fact that a cute white girl (Emma Stone) gets a book deal out of them.
Stone’s character, Skeeter, is a young newspaper columnist who writes up housekeeping tips which she borrows without credit from her helpful black domestic, Aibileen, who is played with quiet, suffering dignity by Viola Davis. The nanny who raised Skeeter, Constantine, has moved to Chicago under mysterious circumstances that Skeeter’s mom (Allison Janney) doesn’t want to discuss.
Meanwhile, a friend of Aibileen and fellow servant Minny (Octavia Spencer) confronts racism with a much less accepting style, earning herself considerable turmoil in the bargain. She is heading for a showdown with a racist friend of Skeeter’s, Hilly (played by Ron Howard’s elfin daughter Bryce Dallas Howard). Hilly’s main political issue is bathrooms: She doesn’t want “colored” people anywhere near any that might be used by a white person, and is horrified by white people who share their facilities with their help. Blacks, it appears to Hilly, carry different germs and should be made to use outhouses.
Within 20 minutes it is obvious that these characters are set up in a nice, reassuring quadrant pattern. On one side are whites, who are either racist or not; on the other side there are black people, who either choose to be submissive or rebellious in the face of segregation.
We know from history (not to mention Faulkner) that race in the South is much more complicated than this, though. Segregationist Strom Thurmond, for instance, secretly had a daughter with his teenaged black servant — and as an adult the daughter later declared, “I did love my father. He was very good to us.” And while only the characters stamped “racist” in fizzing neon are heard using racial slurs in The Help, the fact is what would now be considered shocking, racially-charged epithets were commonplace in the era. Would even a nice girl like Skeeter have used the N-word? She might have. But not in this movie, because that would challenge and confuse the audience, which the movie studio hopes will be filled with people like Skeeter who bought the bestselling novel on which The Help is based.
In Hollywood, a racism story should, for maximum commercial potential, be told primarily through the eyes of white people and must leave us with a warm feeling. However can this be accomplished given the grim history involved? One way is by having the black women agree to tell their stories to Skeeter, who then anonymously writes them up and publishes them, to great success, as an anthologized memoir. Hooray, the women have told their stories! Except they are still stuck with being humiliated on a daily basis. Only if you take an upper-middle-class women’s book club view of the world — an Oprah Winfrey view, if you will — can you possibly find much of a solace or a counterbalance to institutionalized racism in the idea of “telling your story.” The women aren’t even able to use their own names in the book. But Skeeter gives them each a nice tip for their troubles, so that is supposed to cheer us all up.
A second way the movie is meant to make us feel good about race involves what will shortly become one of the most infamous desserts in movie history. For something like 30 minutes of screen time, all anyone can talk about is that dessert, which involves a practical joke. But if you think for a moment about Jim Crow and the unthinking brutality of authority figures — a black woman being arrested is shown being beaten with a nightstick for trying to collect her purse before she is hauled off by cops– the joke doesn’t seem like much to laugh about. It’s there to let us off the hook, to distract us, to reduce the too-real racial conflicts of the Deep South to the level of the frivolous.
Though the movie is in part redeemed by its superb period sets and costumes — it’s a sort of Dixieland Mad Men — and terrific performances, particularly by the wily Spencer as the maid who fights back and Howard as her sweetly vicious employer, the movie is doomed by its format. The demands of the weepie chick flick simply don’t harmonize with the unbeautiful truths about racial injustice under Jim Crow.