(Photo: Dreamworks Pictures)
Summary: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a white socialite in 1960s, segregated Jackson, Mississippi, is an aspiring writer. She has an idea to tell the story of the “colored” help and with the assistance of one maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis), several maids are convinced to spill the beans on their white boss-ladies. Skeeter’s friend, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is leading a campaign for white households to build a separate bathroom for the help, which causes strife with Skeeter, eventually exposing her secret that she is helping the help.
Review: During Viola Davis’ press tour for The Help, much of her promoting has been defending the controversial film. Some are questioning why a story about Black maids in the ’60s is being told through the lens of a white character and a white writer, an all too familiar pattern in Hollywood. The author, Kathryn Stockett, who penned the best-selling novel (the book has many more redemptive qualities than the film), and Tate Taylor, who directed and adapted the book to film, are the minds behind The Help. If they were Black would we see a better film? That is a question I cannot answer. There is an obvious mishandling of race and class in the movie, but I’ve seen several Black directors commit the same cinematic sins.
Many audiences, especially African-American viewers, are exhausted with seeing Black actresses as maids. It was a role to which many Black actresses were regulated to for decades, and The Help brings back old Hollywood memories that some would rather forget.
Viola Davis recently said, “As a Black actress, I can’t play a role that is so multifaceted… because there was something about it that offended a group of people. I can’t be vulnerable. I can’t be a woman who looks down because it’s disabling.” Davis has a point. Many Black actresses feel artistically limited to what roles they can or cannot tackle simply because Black folks might not be happy. This dates back to Hattie McDaniel, who once snapped back at the NAACP for criticizing her for consistently playing maids. The first African-American Oscar winner said: “I’d rather play a maid then be one.” Touché!
Let me put the history of African-Americans in Hollywood off the table for a moment. Regardless of mammy stereotypes, The Help needed some help with its janky, watered-down storyline and its Disneyfied version of the Jim Crow South. Predictably, the movie focuses more on the rich, racist characters versus the heart of the film, the impoverished domestic servants and their untold stories. There should’ve been fewer Southern tea parties and poolside gatherings and more of the gritty realities of being a maid in the ’60s. For a film that is set in pre-civil rights Mississippi, it is too bright and cheery, cheapening the horrific experiences of legalized racism.
Then comes Viola Davis, the Aretha Franklin of acting, to save the day. The two-time Tony Award winner can play any character, on the Broadway stage or the big screen. She has the uncanny ability to make every role shine, and her final scene almost rescues the entire film, but not quite. Yes, Davis deserves recognition for her performance, but hopefully she will get the chance to flaunt her superb acting chops in a film as excellent as her.
The underrated Octavia Spencer was gripping as the sassy Minnie. Unfortunately, her character was steeped in stereotypes like, “Frying chicken tends to make you feel better about life.” But Spencer found every bit of soul in Minnie.
A small role for Cicely Tyson helped round out great casting. But good acting doesn’t always make a good film.
Getting back to the politics of the film, who knows what the various reactions will be from white and Black audiences. Where I saw the film, a white female was sobbing at an emotional scene. The Black woman next to me sucked her teeth and quietly said, “What? She had a mammy as a child?”
Maybe this is an era of history that we as African-Americans are still too attached to and can’t see the film as what it is–a Hollywood flick that is non-threatening and not meant to change the world, only make some money. In moments, the film works, but overall it was another clichéd civil rights film with all of the typical elements: the ultra-racist evil white person (played by disturbingly well by Ron Howard’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard), the sympathetic Southern woman suffering from white guilt, a sassy black rebel and a flock of obedient Negros. There is a dash of Mississippi Burning, a touch of The Long Walk Home and a strong helping of Driving Miss Daisy. Nonetheless, for me, The Help wasn’t impactful enough to be offensive.
All of that said, I trust the cinematic choices of Viola Davis, she is someone who has respect for the art of movie-making. Therefore, me not giving the film an excellent review is not a damnation of Viola Davis or any Black actress who takes a role that she believes is honorable. Davis honored this character, shifting the stereotype of “mammy.”
The Help is in theaters today.