Her riveting turn in the hot-button movie is better, truer, and deeper than the movie itself

Here’s my contribution to the debate over The Help, the much-discussed, fast-growing hit about black domestic servants and their white employers in early-’60s Mississippi: It’s a flawed and even dishonest film in many little ways and some important big ones. Go anyway.

The Help‘s problems range from the cosmetic to the profound. It may seem nitpicky to note that the early-Amy-Irving ringlets on aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan seem to have been teleported from 15 years in the future, and that the white characters’ outfits are all too store-window new, their wigs too Hairspray bright. But sloppy details make the big picture harder to believe. When a New York book editor airily urges Skeeter to finish her oral history of maids ”before this whole civil rights thing blows over,” it reveals the movie’s own ignorance about what a Northern liberal would have believed in 1963. And that makes it hard to trust that it’s getting the South right, either.

The Help deserves real credit for venturing onto turf most studio films don’t go near, but told properly, its story should make audiences uncomfortable rather than complacent. And here’s where the movie goes most wrong. Its villain, Hilly Holbrook — a hypocritical, smug, near-psychotic queen of the mean girls who would rather spit her own maid out into a hurricane than let her use her toilet — is so overdrawn that anyone not wearing a white hood can feel enlightened by comparison. But most ladylike Southern racists didn’t behave like Cruella De Vil. The ”nice,” the moderate, and the well-meaning — some of them were even good mothers! — also inflicted a thousand small insults and injuries that remain more challenging to confront. Instead of going there, The Help indulges in lowball comedy and the soothing cliché that black caregivers are almost supernaturally maternal, with enough love and time for their own children and their white charges. The fact that a stereotype is meant as a compliment doesn’t make it less simplistic. And the twist that a delicious meal cooked by a nice white lady is what gives outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) the fortitude to leave her abusive husband isn’t merely patronizing; it’s a violation of everything we know about her strong-willed character.

But for all its lazy thinking, The Help convinced me that sometimes, performances can achieve a much deeper reality than the story that contains them. That’s certainly true of what Viola Davis, one of our toughest-minded, least sentimental actresses, does with Aibileen Clark. Over the years — as a maid in Far From Heaven, a desperate mother in Doubt, a betrayed wife in Broadway’s Fences — Davis has created a gallery of women striving to hold on to rationality and pride even as the odds tilt against them. Her Aibileen is sorrowful, exhausted, and wary. When she walks, you feel the rust in her back and knees; when she misses the bus home because Skeeter wants to talk to her, her eyes and shoulders tell you what it costs her to extend her day. Using her controlled physicality, her low voice, and her radar for realism, she quiets the movie down — which it desperately needs — and turns herself into the embodiment of the pain, compromise, and strength The Help otherwise struggles to get right. Davis’ integrity melds so seamlessly with Aibileen’s that her work is wrenching on an almost unconscious level — the same way that older audiences may feel somehow gut-punched to see Cicely Tyson, 40 years after Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, playing the aged, humiliated servant Constantine.

These performances don’t just elevate The Help, they force the movie under your skin. There’s a scene in which a dozen maids assemble at Aibileen’s house, ready to tell their stories. Suddenly the screen is filled with mostly unfamiliar African-American actresses. If you imagine that even in 2011, they have the same opportunities as their white counterparts, think again. Their presence resonates; they remind us that The Help isn’t just about history but about our world. If that unsettles you, you should see the movie soon. And if for some reason it doesn’t, you should see it sooner.

The Help
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