[Review] The Help (Taylor, 2011)
The Help has proved critically divisive and rightfully so. When it gets it right, it’s marvelous. When it gets it wrong, it’s shameful. Still, a magnificent group of actresses render this film as sweet as chocolate pie — made not by Octavia Spencer.
The first decisive critical split comes in the characters. Just like so many nostalgic period works we see, writers forget to develop characters – only archetypes. These women are divided into two groups, White Racist Hussies and Color-Free Saintly Perfections. There is Black, there is White, but there is no Gray in The Help. Morality is so sadly made into an on/off switch any three-year old can figure out. In dealing with an issue still so pungent as American racism, Tate Taylor (writer-director) should know that things are much more complex than are presented here. However, so much praise is due to Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. Their individual performances easily stand alone, but in tandem they create a tangible energy and ambition. Moments they share provide some hope for contemporary cinema. Emma Stone is also great. I hesitate in evaluating her because she hesitates in her own role. She is so well-crafted for modernity and self-referential comedy. Visibly, she was working hard to adapt to the period style. It paid off. The rest of the company does as well as possible in their stereotyped restrictions with special applause for Jessica Chastain as Celia. It’s a long way from The Tree of Life, but here she brings to life The Help‘s most vivid and realized character.
The photography is fine. The colors look like a children’s book and some of the bright hues do breathe life into an otherwise deadened 60′s suburbia. Sound, design, make-up, and costumes all do well enough jobs that I don’t feel like complaining and I can’t find a reason to commend. Not so in the editing room. The picture is long. Towards the end, it isn’t bothersome at all. However, the opening of the film could have lost five to ten minutes of footage as introductions drag on and on. Sure enough, rewatching the first half-hour uncovers one unnecessary scene and two that are egregiously long. Also, the final confrontation between Aibileen and Hilly seems an appendix. It does nothing for the film but offer one a chance to shout at the other. As if Taylor were trying to tie up the film with a nice bow regardless of the fact that Aibileen had just lost her job. Here again, THE HELP ends on a strangely certain note. Civil Rights was only a dream in 1964; the movement only beginning to gain speed. If there was a happy ending for Aibileen, it wasn’t at the denouement of The Help.
Disregarding the archetypes, the bad coda, and some numbness, The Help did beautifully conjure age-old imagery of White kids being raised by Black women. It’s one that so many of our parents remember. Was that a way to improve race relations? Were those awful days polishing silver the seeds of a great improvement? The Help might mean many things here. It might mean Skeeter writing a revolutionary book. It might mean Hilly “helping” herself to a nice slice of pie. It might mean Aibileen raising children while hers is at home. The point is that help needs to come from everywhere “and it needs to start with the truth,” as they say.
Black ladies will raise the kids. Black ladies write the books. Black ladies clean the kitchens. Black ladies write the newspaper columns.
But the most unfortunate flaw in the film is that a White lady saves the Black ladies. Perpetuating the thankless circumstances that need to end.