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Strong Performances Cannot Save The Help from Its Doomed Format

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.