by Mel Valentin
Based on Katherine Stockett’s 2009 best-selling Civil Rights Era/Deep South set novel, "The Help," arrives in theaters freighted with controversy over its depiction of African-American women and the race (white) of its Southern born-and-bred author. Adapted and directed by Stockett’s childhood friend and one-time roommate, Tate Taylor, with a minimum of subtlety, "The Help" is another slickly produced, melodrama-heavy, minimally insightful take on race and racism (circa 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi), but it’s made passably watchable by a stellar cast, especially Viola Davis’ nuanced, award-worthy turn as an introspective, introverted maid forced through circumstances, social, cultural, political, and personal, into facing the changing world around her.The Help divides its 146-minute running time between three characters, each one central to Stockett’s semi-historical, semi-fantastical exploration of race and racism in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Era. Stockett’s novel gave the three characters, Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone), a liberal twenty-something college graduate, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a maid in the employ of Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O'Reilly), a young, married woman seemingly unprepared for the pressures and demands of motherhood, and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a maid originally employed by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the local Junior League leader, unapologetic, unreconstructed racist, and, unsurprisingly, The Help’s central villain (the word “hissable” was invented for one-dimensional villains like Hilly, her well-earned comeuppance practically guaranteed by The Help’s faux-uplift message).
"Award-worthy performance(s) buoy a deeply problematic film."
Skeeter belongs to the upper-crust, upper-class world of the Leefolts and the Holbrooks (among others), but her political values, gleaned, apparently, from her liberal education (her bookshelf includes a copy of Richard Wright’s “Native Son”) and her relationship with Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson), Skeeter’s former nanny and substitute mother figure. To tip the sympathy meter further in Skeeter’s direction Stockett and Taylor give Skeeter a mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), struggling with cancer and casual racism driven more by peer pressure than actual belief. Charlotte holds the key to Constantine’s disappearance. It’s a mystery, however, with little weight or resonance, handled in a late-film scene that’s as unsurprising as it is predictable. Skeeter, a wannabe writer, hits on the idea of writing a book on the “help,” essentially recording the oral testimonies of the invisible maids and nannies through their own voices.
Skeeter’s book, however, can’t get off the ground until she gets the willing participation of several maids. She first turns to Aibileen, later Minny, and later still, several others. Davis’ simple, unadorned retelling of Aibileen’s personal life, the loss of her beloved son, her complex, complicated relationship with her employers, and the children, 17 by her last count, that she’s raised as her own, gives The Help its emotional core. Aibileen’s story, along with the stories of the other maids, provides The Help with its most poignant, affecting moments. Those moments, however, are often undercut or undermined when The Help returns to Skeeter’s personal problems (e.g., her fraught relationship with her mother, a new boyfriend, her relationship with the other Junior Leaguers) or Minny’s broad, comedic storyline that involves Holbrook and, later, Celia Foote (the newly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain), a ditzy, bottle-blonde social outcast.
Celia’s outsider status, apparently due to her nouveau riche social status (she married into money), makes her both a foil and a confidante for Minny (a stretch among many other stretches The Help asks us to buy). She doesn’t suffer fools gladly and given the time and place, her smart mouth limits her employment opportunities. She’s also Aibileen’s best friend, but more importantly, she serves as comic relief. One of her actions gives The Help one of its crudest, but, to be fair, funniest running gags (it won’t be spoiled her for readers unfamiliar with Stockett’s novel). Without Minny, Aibileen’s struggles would be too grim, too difficult for most audiences. Aibileen’s transformation occurs gradually, in a word or gesture, rather than a stream of dialogue or public action.Ultimately, that leaves Skeeter’s character, loosely based or inspired by Stockett’s own experiences, if not marginalized, then almost superfluous. Her personal journey, already complete when "The Help" opens, turns on whether she’ll choose to remain in Jackson, Mississippi, get married and have children (as her mother desperately desires) or move to Manhattan to purse a writing career (no bets on which path she chooses). Still, for all of Skeeter’s weaknesses as a character, she serves her primary function: as a catalyst for Aibileen and Minny’s personal journeys. It’s there (again) that "The Help" opens itself up to criticism, all of it justified, but with a universally strong cast and a standout performance by Viola Davis (debate has already begun on whether she should receive a Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress nod next year), "The Help" will more than satisfy fans of Stockett’s novel. Others, however, will be (and should be) less than pleased with "The Help’s" more problematic aspects.
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originally posted: 08/10/11 20:00:00