Oh, and when I showed up too late for another movie, I saw Cowboys & Aliens instead. I think I did, anyway; like Daniel Craig’s gunslinger at the beginning of the story, my memory has been wiped clean of the experience.
The Help, which looks to repeat at No. 1 at the boxoffice this weekend–and there’s little stopping it from capturing the crown, fittingly, on Labor Day weekend, either–has several things going for it. It is, or was, a sleeper, and it’s nice to see an underdog rise up the ranks. (Not every bestselling book is an automatic winner with movie audiences.) The book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, promised her BFF, actor and filmmaker Tate Taylor, that he could adapt and direct the movie version if it ever got off the ground, and made good on her promise. (A true-life Hollywood ending.) It doesn’t have any superheroes, apes, or cowboys & aliens. It does have some terrific actresses, and it means well. Lord, does it mean well.
But it falls short. Part of it is the movie–for helping him get the chance to direct Stockett must have leaned on him to get every scrap of incident into his script, and the movie natters on for 137 minutes, too often on tangents. Part of it may be the book–the story is by turns crude and cartoonish, then mawkish and overly sentimental, a winning formula distinct from literary merit. (And, no, I haven’t read it, but my mother-in-law, who loved it, recounted it to me chapter and verse one night. It’s a mom and mother-in-law kind of thing, and that underserved demographic turns out in droves when something hits its sweet spot.) And part of it is what it is, a chick flick with sisters-under-the-skin bonding with historical flavoring added, which in this case goes down as easily as the poop pie made in the movie.
The Help is the kind of movie that obliges critics to become armchair historians, which inevitably leads to slugfests when the treatment of issues or where to “place” the movie overwhelms all other considerations, like here. (To Olsen I would say, in concurrence, that if The Help represents the new middlebrow, the bar has been lowered for middlebrow, but add that Colors was his sainted Dennis Hopper’s middlebrow consideration of race, his Help as it were.) I don’t think that The Help is an “evil” movie; we’re not talking The Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will here, films whose considerable artistry are wedded to insidious content. It has little artistry–this is one of those movies where the sets and costumes look like sets and costumes, completely fake and unlived in–and the content is egregiously soft-pedaled. So it is a troublesome one.
Already vexed by the book The Association of Black Women Historians weighed in early on the film, and its comments are illuminating. Not that I agree with everything in its “open statement to the fans” (chumps). It’s true that one (unseen) black man in the movie is drunk and abusive–but just about all of the men in the film are useless, and I wish Taylor and Stockett could have lost the wildly inconsistent boyfriend of Skeeter (Emma Stone), a subplot that idles the movie. All of the subplots dealing with Skeeter’s venal, prejudiced friends (Bryce Dallas Howard, a drag on every movie, is the worst offender) and mother (a cornpone Allison Janney) pull focus from her attempt to uplift the lives of maids Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) by getting them to commit their stories to paper, a task that once achieved opens up fault lines in genteel Jackson, Mississippi.
But I’m on the same page with much of what’s being said. Going further I’d say the key to The Help‘s success is that it does reduce the struggle for equality to “individual acts of meanness,” avenged with a bestselling book and poop pie, and presented to us with potty humor (which I related to, given my own running battle with my three-year-old on this issue) and broad Southern caricatures. If that attitude were restricted to the screen, I’d wince, and be more willing to take the good with the bad (the best parts of the movie have a Steel Magnolias tartness to them), and that would be it. But its diminishment of an entire bloody chapter in our history is in the air, from presidential candidates no less, and the movie represents a trivialization that is simply unacceptable. The movie puts the fight for civil rights on the same continuum as a white woman’s writerly quest for empowerment and a ditsy white housewife’s learning to make fried chicken for her husband, which is a whole lot of poop pie.
(And the ending–spoiler–is bewildering, with Skeeter now a writer headed for New York, or an editorial job she would seem overqualified for, and Aibileen poised to become one. But how? She’s told her story to Skeeter, who transcribed it as faithfully as Taylor did his script for the movie. Neither task is “writing” in the real world, but such is how the writing life is treated in the movies.)
The Help is the good twin to Mississippi Burning (1988), another questionable saga, with its poverty and killings and brutality swept under a carefully cleaned rug. But a good twin can have a dark side. Calvin Trillin ended a recent, outstanding New Yorker recollection about his covering the Freedom Riders by noting that Mississippi is planning themed attractions based on civil rights, and it’s easy to see The Help (filmed in the state, something unthinkable back in the day) as a model for how a thorny subject might be made entertaining for the tourist trade. DreamWorks could donate those pretty, lifeless sets for decoration. It’s unsettling that the movie The Long Walk Home and the TV series I’ll Fly Away, both 20 years old now, dealt more forthrightly with this era from the perspective of maids; are we so far away from it that we can’t see it, or are we choosing not to see it?
The back-and-forth generated by this not-so-innocuous innocuous movie looks set to continue through Oscar season, with Davis and Spencer the likely recipients of end-of-year nominations. Here I part ways with the ABWH, which praised their “stellar performances.” They’re not. Good as they can be (and Davis is a stellar performer, right up there with Cicely Tyson, whose ghostly presence, so strong in the 70s and so seemingly sapped now, haunts the movie) they each have one note to play in The Help–Davis resignation, Spencer sassiness–and they do so with workmanlike efficiency. “I’d rather get paid $700 a week to play a maid than get paid $7 to be one,” said Hattie McDaniel, who won her Oscar playing the mother of all black maids, the quintessential Mammy, in Gone with the Wind. Sure, the price has gone up, and the rewards are still there. But there’s nothing deeply felt for them to find, and to play, in this shallow crowdpleaser, and for actresses of such ability The Help isn’t much of a job.