Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Help (2011)

Director: Tate Taylor                                 Writers: Tate Taylor
Film Score: Thomas Newman                    Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Starring: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard

I wanted to like this film a lot more than I did. When I first heard about the novel by Kathryn Stockett, I thought it was a great premise and was not surprise when it was turned into a feature film. The Help is the story of the Jim Crow South during the nineteen sixties, as told from the perspective of the black domestic servants of the time. To call them housekeepers or maids would be to vastly euphemize their actual standing in those white households. Of course we’re all familiar with the marches and the fire hoses and the dogs, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but there’s something incredibly chilling about the small battles and subtle humiliations that were an everyday occurrence for these people, and it’s something that needed to be exposed to a wider audience and become part of the tapestry of degradation that defined the South after the Civil War.

Viola Davis is a longtime servant of a couple in the wealthy white neighborhoods of Jackson, Mississippi during the early sixties. When a single and career-minded writer Emma Stone returns home from college to her friends, who want nothing more for her than to marry and join the junior league, she subtly resists and is bothered by the treatment her friends mete out to their domestic “help,” and so she enlists the aid of Davis in order to write an expose. One of the primary indignities of the story is the refusal of the white women to allow their black servants to use the bathrooms in the house. During a hurricane Octavia Spencer is caught in the bathroom inside the house where she works and is immediately fired by Bryce Dallas Howard, so she eventually joins Davis in helping Stone with her book, telling stories of the abuse they have had to endure all their lives.

While Davis is the nominal star of the film, Octavia Spencer clearly dominates the screen and was rewarded for her work by winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress. Emma Stone is great as the feisty rebel, and half of the story is devoted to her own battles with sexism and the expectations for rich Southern women of the time. One of the things that is impossible to avoid in telling these kinds of stories is the dependence of blacks on white patrons in order to produce anything artistic, whether in music, drama, or writing. In many films it can be seen as undermining blacks and their artistic contribution to our society. This is especially true in the majority of films in the twentieth century where it appears that whites are “teaching” the blacks their art. Tate Taylor’s script does a nice job, however, of making sure that Stone gives credit to the women themselves for “writing” the book, and even gives them all of the advance money when it is published. While Stone is the vehicle for getting their stories out, she makes it clear it is their book, and Davis emphasizes on several occasions that she is the writer.

The first half of the film is, by far, my favorite, but there are some problems overall. The two stories, Davis and Stone, don’t seem to mesh well together. Granted, the two women operate in the same worlds and intersect on many occasions, but I think this is one of those instances where it probably works better in the novel than on screen. The ending also bothered me because it seemed too pat, to easy, and too unrealistic. Everything turns out fine for all of the characters. It was a happy ending . . . in a story of racism that still hasn’t ended in this country. We still have battles to fight, and we can’t become complacent in patting ourselves on the back and saying this is all over, because it’s not. That said, it’s still a powerful film with an important message, and a look into a world that is not typically remembered. Even with its flaws, The Help is a solid, entertaining, enlightening film that I would recommend to everyone.

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