Help Emma Stone Viola
Credit: Dale Robinette

Lots of movies divide audiences (you liked it, I hated it, and the world goes round). But a liberal message movie about race has the power to divide audiences — and critics — in a special way. The people who respond to it are likely to feel moved, uplifted, morally transported, emotionally activated. Others may feel not so much that they don’t respond but that they’re reacting against what they’re seeing — a “hard-hitting” mass-audience truth that is actually a feel-good lie.

Over the years, I have often found myself on the latter side of that divide, excoriating movies that passed off complacency as racially enlightened boldness. In the 1980s, there was a spate of films about the moral obscenity of life in South Africa that insisted on hanging their dramas on the shoulders of white protagonists — and that, as I usually took pains to point out, was wrong. (Why did a movie like Cry Freedom, featuring Denzel Washington as the slain anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, need to have a crusading white journalist played by Kevin Kline as its hero? Answer: It didn’t.) More recently, I was shocked that art-house audiences could have fallen for the finger-pointing sanctimony of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies (1996) — a movie that basically pulled the same ploy as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), springing a (saintly) black visitor on a racially insensitive household in order to get viewers to shed a tear of sympathy and, at the same time, to flex a muscle of moral superiority.

It’s no surprise, really, that The Help, the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel that opened big out of the starting gate, has, in some quarters, been socked with that kind of criticism. On paper, at least, The Help sounds exactly like the kind of well-meaning but backward, “progressive” yet pious movie that Hollywood, by now, should perhaps have outgrown. It’s set in the early civil rights era, a time whose turbulence long ago hardened into safe, non-controversial mythology. It centers on the daily hardships of two black maids, somber Aibileen (Viola Davis) and feisty Minny (Octavia Spencer), in Jackson, Miss. — but the majority of the film’s characters are white (as is the film’s writer-director, Tate Taylor, and Stockett herself). The movie’s central narrative mechanism, whereby a well-meaning college graduate named Skeeter (Emma Stone) interviews the maids of Jackson for an anonymous tell-all book about their experiences, seems to conform to the conventional, patronizing arc of a white heroine lending a noble hand of assistance to black characters who couldn’t, without her help, have done it on their own. (She can also be viewed as vaulting herself to success on their backs.)

Beneath all of these factors, there’s a basic, staring-you-in-the-face element that I think has been responsible for a certain moralistic ire that has greeted The Help. And that is this: Why, in 2011, at a moment when we have our first African-American president, does the most prominent movie of the year to deal with black life in America center on housekeepers and servants from 50 years ago? Is this really an exploration — or is it a kind of genteel, borderline racist nostalgia?

Well, I’d like to testify that if you forget about what The Help looks like it adds up to “on paper,” and if you actually watch what’s up there on screen, what you’ll see is a movie that is tender, biting, honest, surprising, and far, far more curious and morally adventurous about race than many have given it credit for. The key to the film’s power, and its originality, is this: It’s a movie not about taking bold crusader’s stands — which, at this point, wouldn’t be a bold movie to make anyway — but about the low-key, day-to-day, highly ambivalent intimacy of black/white relationships in the Deep South. It’s about what really goes on in middle-class households between the lines of the most seemingly ordinary encounters.

More than that, what’s refreshing about The Help — and this, I think, is what the critics of it have gotten wrong — is that it doesn’t use white characters as a false entry point of identification for the audience. It is, rather, a sprawling ensemble piece that asks everyone in the audience — black and white, women and men — to identify with everyone on screen. That’s the way that Robert Altman’s films used to work. They were tough-minded spectacles of shifting empathy, and The Help, though it lacks Altman’s storytelling magic (it’s prose rather than poetry), isn’t so far removed in spirit from an Altman film. Every woman in it has her own way of looking at the world, and the movie wants you to understand how those viewpoints all jostle and mesh and collide.

Based on its smashing first five days, I’d say that The Help is fast on its way to becoming more than just a hit, more than a “chick flick” counterprogramming alternative like Julie & Julia or Eat Pray Love. Right smack in the middle of the summer silly season, it’s that unlikely thing, a serious water-cooler Event Movie, the kind of picture that people are going to seek out and think about and talk about for weeks and weeks to come. It’s a movie that’s going to provoke a lot of dialogue, and so here, to help get the conversation rolling, are several points of contention that I’d like to address head-on, all as a way of explaining why I think The Help is a movie that should not be judged by its cover.

Why does this movie centered on black experience have so many white characters? Because it’s one of the rare Hollywood movies that begins to capture the extraordinarily complex black/white synergy of the Deep South. There’s a fantastic contradiction at the film’s core: The chatty, upscale Betty Draper-gone-Dixie housewives treat their maids as lowly, often invisible employees, yet they rely on them as nannies, and the children the maids take care of regard them as surrogate mothers. So, in truth, they’re far from lowly. Yet if the reality of these relationships were readily acknowledged, it would be a blasphemy — a violation of Jim Crow. The civil rights revolution was about African-Americans taking action to gut the evils of segregation, but it was also, inescapably, about how whites, especially in the South, had to change. And so it makes sense that the housewives in The Help are, in a funny way, half the story of the civil rights era. Most of them hold racist attitudes, but they fall along a subtle continuum of insensitivity inching toward decency. Bryce Dallas Howard makes the bigoted, controlling Hilly a study in the psychology of racial paranoia (she actually thinks she’s a liberal), but Jessica Chastain, as the flaky, lost Celia, shows you how when people really need each other (as she comes to need Minny), prejudice can dissolve. It happens out of human necessity, a change that then feeds the “cause.”

The movie has been called mediocre except for Viola Davis, who’s great. Make no mistake: Davis is great. Her Aibileen holds her face like a stoic mask, her eyes saddened yet accusatory, and in the scene where she finally lets us know why, telling the story of what happened to her son, her tears of still-lingering rage are cathartic. Her story evokes one way that violence can work in the Deep South — quietly, almost passively, so that the perpetrators don’t need to feel guilty but can, instead, feel that they did “everything they could.” Davis’s acting is exquisite (she’s the emblem of the film’s drama of spiritual grief), but the argument that she’s the one truly worthy element in The Help is based on the middlebrow — and arguably patronizing — perception that Aibileen is a character with “dignity” because she expresses her plight with great solemnity, whereas a performance like Octavia Spencer’s is more trivial because it’s comic and sharply angled. Spencer, however, is superb as well: Her range of moods is startling (just watch the scene where she talks about frying chicken as a respite from the world — and if you think that sounds like a “racist” cliché, you’re still judging the book by its cover). She’s the hostile spitfire to Aibileen’s despairing Sphinx. And it’s Spencer’s performance that answers the following criticism…

Even after Medgar Evers is murdered, the movie doesn’t portray the slightest impulse toward civil-rights activism among black housekeepers. There are dozens of dramas about the civil rights era that have had the bravery of black activism at their heart. The beauty of The Help is that it shows us the form that activism could take among women who weren’t activists. When Spencer’s Minny, faced with having to use a bathroom out back in the rain, decides to sneak into the “proper” white bathroom inside the house instead, and then flushes the toilet on purpose, out of sheer anger, when she’s caught by her employer, the abominable racist princess Hilly, that decision — and the courage to carry it out — is every bit as activist as Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus. It’s just not public. It is not, as Minny experiences it, an overtly “political” act, which is what makes it so truly, deeply political.

The Help resurrects Hollywood stereotypes out of the Gone with the Wind era. In a sharply worded statement, the Association of Black Women Historians raised the following objection to both the book and the movie: “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers….The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy — a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them.” As a white male critic, I feel slightly sensitive taking on the Association of Black Women Historians, but I feel compelled to answer their criticism by saying: The Help, make no mistake, is about systemic racism. In no way does it portray maids and nannies as “contented caretakers,” like Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind. The women here are shown to be loyal to the jobs, and families, upon whom their livelihoods (and maybe even their lives) depend, and their devotion to the children they’re caring for is genuine. (The film’s most wrenching irony is that they teach these kids the self-esteem that they themselves aren’t allowed to act out in the world.) Yet the way that they’re treated on their jobs, and all but forced to keep them, more or less as if they were owned, is shown to be part of a rigidly oppressive racist system. All of them have festering pockets of fear and unhappiness and resentment that they’re required to conceal except in small, private, and occasionally rebellious ways.

The film creates an equivalence between the hardships endured by black maids and the restrictions faced by white women in the patriarchal, get-married-or-get-lost Southern culture of the early ’60s. Well, no. It never argues for an equivalence. (That would be insane.) But it does say that there’s a parallel — that in that period, a woman like Skeeter (Emma Stone), who wanted to do something with her life besides settle down, was trying to break out of a certain shell, and that maybe that gave her a deeper understanding of the shackles that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the woman who raised her, and the other maids of Jackson had to contend with.

It’s a movie about a young white woman using the black experience for her book. What matters here is why Skeeter does what she does. Is she a careerist? Or does she feel that this tale needs to be told? The answer lies in the tremulous decency, and modesty, of Emma Stone’s performance. Besides, it’s not really her book; it’s the maids’ book. She gets the publishing credit, but the glory of unmasking the truth is theirs.

Why maids, why now? Race, as a subject, has a way of bubbling up in movies to express something urgent in the culture. In the ’70s, when the idealism of the civil rights era had given way to an unprecedented cataclysm of integration, liberation, street-style innovation, funk and soul, drugs and crime, raised hopes and dashed dreams, we had the blaxploitation era, we had Roots, we had Mahogany and Richard Pryor, we had Cicely Tyson in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Today, it’s a racially quieter era, but in a different way it’s every bit as charged. On those occasions when the take-no-prisoners attacks on President Obama carry a racist undercurrent (as they sometimes do), it’s a racism that has learned not to speak its name — to speak in code instead. That’s often how people spoke of race in the South in the early ’60s. And so maybe that’s one reason why a movie like this one can speak to us now. I envision audiences, black and white, watching The Help, all sharing a greater understanding of our past. But whenever people gather in a movie theater, it is always to share the present, and maybe to know it better.

What matters, in the end, about the reaction against The Help — and what, at least to me, invalidates that reaction — is that it’s a case of people looking a little too hard for easy moral contradictions to skewer in a movie that, in fact, revels in its contradictions. As for the glib implication that the movie is basically “for whites” (i.e., not for African-Americans), that, to me, is nothing short of profoundly racist. I mean, seriously, who’s to say? Traditional liberal Hollywood message movies have taken tough, unruly subjects like race and forced them into reassuring, simple-to-read slots. But The Help, even though it’s a film that wants to move you in straight-down-the-middle ways, isn’t such a simple movie to read. This is one case where it may not be the film that’s sanitizing the messy issues of race in America so much as the people who are overly eager to beat up on it.

So did you, like me, think that The Help was an honest movie about race? Did it move you, enlighten you, inspire you, or in any way change your thinking? And if not, where, exactly, did you think it went wrong?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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