The Help is a curious picture that suffers from two overlookable yet still problematic flaws: it’s too safe and doesn’t know what kind of picture to be. It is as advertised, a movie about racial relations in Jackson, Mississippi in the Jim Crow days. With that subject in mind you would think that it would have sharper edges and tackle its material in a more painful and controversial manner. You would also expect it not to sporadically switch gears from a comedy to a drama every few scenes.
It is acted well, to be sure, and sports a top-notch (and mostly female) cast. Relative newcomer Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, a recent college graduate and aspiring author who decides to secretly interview the black maidservants of early 60s Mississippi and record their thoughts in a book. As you can imagine they are mistreated to various degrees. Some are not even allowed to use the toilets in their employers’ houses and have to use external latrines. The maids at first are too frightened to talk. The first to break their silence to Skeeter are Abilene, played wonderfully by the great Viola Davis, and Minnie played by Octavia Spencer. Abilene has spent most of her life raising white children to whom she truly gives her love. Minnie has been recently fired from her position in the household of Hilly Holbrook, a cringingly evil and superficial socialite played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Hilly’s entire existence seems dedicated to keeping blacks segregated and her mother in a nursing home. By the way, Hilly’s mother is the great Sissy Spacek in a hilarious role.
Skeeter must conduct her interviews in secret because in the state of Mississippi it was illegal to push any social reform concerning racial equality. Many of the movie’s scenes concerning segregation are truly painful and get us angry at the injustice. If only the entire movie were like that. In all it’s very safe and nice and one-sided. Instead of dealing with the issues in a complex way, the picture simply makes black-and-white statements about the magnificence of Skeeter’s crusade against segregation. Skeeter and the maids are wholesome, wonderful people through and through. Hilly and her crowd of social cannibals are pure evil. The movie doesn’t bother to ask whether the racists are in fact racist or whether they are just upholding long held Southern traditions. It doesn’t bother to ask whether Skeeter does what she does out of compassion for the maids, or if she just wants to make a lot of money off a controversial book.
The movie also drifts back and forth between comedy and drama. Many of the key plot points are downright slapstick. Often this liberal sprinkling of farce doesn’t seem to fit. About halfway through the picture one of the maids does something extremely funny that alters the rest of the story. Sure, it was hilarious, but I didn’t believe the character would actually do something like that for a minute.
The only other white woman on Skeeter’s side is white-trash Celia Foote. Thank God they dyed Jessica Chastain’s hair blonde for this roll or we wouldn’t be able to tell her from Bryce Dallas Howard. She hires Minnie to cook and clean while Mr. Foote is at work so that he’ll think she’s being a good housewife. Celia is not well liked by the other women, but she doesn’t know it. This results in a couple of particularly awkward and hilarious scenes. Again, the humor is not quite appropriate in the kind of film this is trying to be. It’s much like the family-friendly picture about racism. Of course this is absurd because no such thing actually exists if it is to be done well. There’s an obligatory black church scene where the pastor rants and raves and the congregation shouts right back at him. I wish just once black people in the movies would go to a church that has a mellow preacher and a less interested group of parishioners.
As I said, The Help is very safe and secure in its own comfort zone. It doesn’t really try to be controversial and it doesn’t make an effort to tackle the subject that hasn’t been tackled before. And the little sprinkles of humor are less than appropriate. Sure, I laughed at them, but I don’t think I should be invited to laugh in this kind of movie. It seems there’s a lot of hype about this picture. It is not as great as all that. Then again, it’s not a bad picture either. It’s contritely mediocre.