The Help

August, 2011, Drama

Directed by:Tate Taylor

Hollywood isn’t known for successfully adapting great novels for the screen, but it’s often been able to convert literary content into highly successful commercial entertainment. First-time novelist Kathryn Stockett’s widely read novel about the mid-20th century lives of African-American domestics in the deep South generated lots of “buzz” when it was published a couple of years ago and it will undoubtedly benefit from writer/director Tate Taylor’s adaption to the big screen. Overly long, blatantly sentimental and boasting first-rate production values, this examination of the racial attitudes and social mores of upper-middle class housewives in Jackson Mississippi in the 1950’s and ‘60’s manages to be maddeningly schizophrenic and brilliantly tailored to the “chick flick” demographic. Taylor’s marketability as a bankable director will surely soar as a result.

What measure of gravitas Help contains can be attributed to the gripping performance of Viola Davis, (Doubt, Far From Heaven). She plays Aibileen, a maid forced by poverty and lack of other job options to endure the indignities of racial discrimination in the small but bitingly intimate way practiced in the pre-Civil Rights South.  After a particularly degrading confrontation with her employer, Aibileen is approached by “Skeeter” Phelan, (Emma Stone) a gawky aspiring writer from Jackson’s Junior League set, and asked to share experiences as a woman of color spending her life taking care of the children and households of upper middle class white matrons. Initially hesitant about becoming involved and often subsequently upstaged by Minnie Jackson, (Octavia Spencer) her outspoken friend and fellow contributor to project, these two poorly educated but extremely resourceful women slowly gather their friends into a “tell all” group that provides Skeeter with abundant ammunition about the venal biases of their employers and the means by which the maids salvage their own dignity.

The plot explores a handful of these mistress/servant relationships, treating the audience to a succession of white women who are vain, mean-spirited, conniving and abusive or superficial, ditzy and easily manipulated by their racist peers. Only Skeeter seems to recognize the moral corruption of racial discrimination - - and she’s harassed by her own mother and dumped by her boyfriend as a result. But the winds of change begin to blow inexorably through even the deepest portions of the old South and what was once considered perfectly appropriate racial behavior grudgingly gives way to the realities of racial equality.

When the director concentrates on the small details of this storyline, Help delivers some telling observations: black women forced to step out of the way in grocery store shopping aisles to allow white women the right of way, the facial expressions of white children struggling to understand why the black women who provide them with so much affection cannot be treated in a similar manner in the presence of their parents, the smarmy thanks given to the all-black “wait staffs” at all-white social events - - Taylor’s script often treats his black characters with too much reverence, but he presents the bitter truth of their situation with admirable candor.

But the white women in Help’s storyline never approach the credibility of their black counterparts, serving only as plot devices to underscore the evils of a segregated system, which permits them to exploit others on the basis of their skin color. As a result, the nuanced portraits of the film’s black women are juxtaposed with white caricatures, which cause Help to oscillate between insightful social commentary and soap opera banality, often exacerbated by the cloying sentimentality of its characters as the storyline progresses from rigid racial discrimination to tentative acceptance. Skeeter fashions her material into a best-selling selling book, prompting anguished reactions from those depicted and providing a bit of sweet comeuppance for the author and her sources.

The Help isn’t a great movie, nor even a particularly good one, but Davis’ performance, the director’s haphazard but observant glimpses into the debasement of his African American subjects and the buffoonish conduct of the movie’s self-appointed society matrons make for sure-fire box-office success.

The verdict? A curious mixture of heartfelt realism and cheesy melodrama, held together by Davis’ compelling lead performance.

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