This will be out in next week’s LGBT Weekly.
I must admit that I walked into The Help expecting to be offended. Because I knew it to be about a young white woman writing a book about the black maids in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, perhaps unfairly I expected it to be a prequel of sorts to The Blind Side. That movie, about a rich white lady who saves a poor black boy from poverty and turns him into a successful pro football player, won Sandra Bullock an Oscar. But as the critic Melissa Anderson wrote, and I concur, The Blindside “peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of blacks who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them.” However, I was thrilled that The Help, in fact, is nothing like that. Despite (or maybe because of) some cloying sentimentality and an overly simplistic binary of good and evil, The Help is strikingly good populist entertainment about morality, ethics, and bravery. Yes, it is about a white woman who helps black women rise up, but it is also about why and how these women fight back, why they decide to risk everything, and why telling the truth becomes more important than anything else.
The story is centered around three women: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a young, unmarried, rich, and white Jackson society woman who wants to be a writer; Aibilene Clark (Viola Davis), a black maid who has raised nearly two dozen children for white employers who couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves; and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), another black maid who is as a good at cooking as she is bad she is at controlling her “sass.” Both Aibilene and Minny work for friends of Skeeter, and when Skeeter decides to write about “the help” from their perspective of the maids, it is first Aibilene and then Minny who provide the initial stories. Since this is 1963 Jackson, not only is it taboo for Skeeter and Aibilene to be having anything more than the most superficial of conversations, it is actually illegal for Aibiline and Minny to help write the book, since it is, according to the film, a clear violation of Jim Crow laws banning the dissemination of literature advocating equal rights for whites and blacks. There is danger all around, with the evil of white supremacy, classism, arrogance and hypocrisy conveniently embodied in lithe steeliness of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).
The seriousness of all of this is lightened by several less scary subplots and by every scene involving Minny. While Spencer has been stealing scenes in small roles for years, as Minny, she is a revelation, brilliantly funny (sometimes with only a raised eyebrow) while also being so deeply and believably embedded in the role of an arrogant yet terrified, wise yet impulsive woman trapped in the hell of Jim Crow. Even better is Viola Davis, one of the great actresses of her generation, whose pride, sorrow, love, and bravery is as intensely portrayed as possible without being difficult to watch. That Davis and Spencer will be nominated for Oscars should be a foregone conclusion.
I missed the review screenings for the film, so I saw it in the theater with an actual paying audience. It was a Thursday matinee, and the theater was packed with women, about a third of whom were African-American. I’m glad I saw it with that crowd, because their love – the easy laughter, the cheers, and the expressive loathing of Hilly – was infectious. I’m sure I would have liked The Help if I’d seen it alone, but the communal experience of watching the film with the demographic it was made for added to its enjoyment. (For example, when Warrior comes out, see it with Marines. You won’t regret it.) This is a movie about and for women – of its 146 minutes, there may be all of ten minutes of scenes featuring men speaking. Movies like this, from The Women to Steel Magnolias, tend be beloved by gay men, too. There are as many, if not more, witticisms and zingers in The Help as either of those two earlier classics. As funny as it is, it’s also rather moving. The schmaltz is turned up too high for me, but for the audience I watched it with, it was just enough.
Written and Directed by Tate Taylor
Starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Bryce Dallas Howard
At your local multiplex