Well, I was expecting worse. Though The Help, directed by Tate Taylor and based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name, is by large a feel good, “white people weren’t all bad,” fried-chicken-lickin’ film, it was made with good intentions. I would never, however, argue that the creator’s intent takes precedence over the work itself, so I must ultimately award the film a hearty two thumbs down, though Viola Davis’s outstanding performance in the role of Aibileen nearly salvages the film… nearly.
The Help is ostensibly about the hardships faced by housemaids Aibileen and Minny, but essentially boils down to a story about Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college grad returned home to Jackson, Mississippi. Upon arrival, she finds that her maid, Constantine, has moved to Chicago under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Skeeter is miffed but focuses her attention on reuniting with old friends, writing for the local newspaper, and trying to impress Elaine Stein, the editor for Harper and Row Publishing. Stein tells Skeeter to write about something controversial and personally meaningful, so Skeeter decides to write about the difficulties faced by “the help”—the black women who work for her and her friends. According to the movie, the principle challenge faced by these women is bigoted social queen Hilly Holbrook’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) campaign for segregated bathrooms. Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny (Octavia Spencer) each take on Hilly in one form or another while simultaneously writing their sections in Skeeter’s book. Hijinks—both humorous (Hilly eating a poo pie) and depressing (Yule Mae’s arrest)—ensue. Satisfying as her ultimate defeat may be, however, the Hilly-as-villain narrative creates a view of racism that is localized to individual meanness rather than institutionalized systems of oppression. Publically humiliate one southern belle for eating a poo pie, goodbye Jim Crow.
The Help, like its white heroine, attempts to create a scathing critique of racism, but in framing the action as a coming-of-age, defeating-frenemies, gaining-mother’s-approval-story for Skeeter, the film becomes yet another Hollywood appropriation of black history for white validation. There are some positive moments, such as Aibileen’s decision to dictate her own stories rather than respond to Skeeter’s questions. But the film’s ultimate need to “save” Aibileen and Minny (one from voiceless despair, the other from an abusive husband) through the benevolent actions of white women ruins whatever message of hope I was meant to depart with. The book of one wannabe reporter should not be allowed to stand for the courage of the Civil Rights Movement, just as the cruelty of one herpes-lipped housewife should not be allowed to stand for the struggles of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.