I know I’ve written this before, but when my sister Pamela and I first watched Gone With the Wind when it debuted on network TV in the late 70s, we had a major falling out over the motivations and actions taken by one Scarlett O’Hara. The point of contention was Scarlett slapping Prissy across the face. My sister was appalled at this racist brutality. I, having read the book 36 times, countered that Prissy, in the 11th hour and having repeatedly reassured Scarlett about her midwifery abilities, lets out the truth that she has no idea what to do; Scarlett’s going to have to deliver Melanie’s baby on her own, and oh yeah, the murderous Yankees are burning down the city and set to invade momentarily. I was right, of course, but perhaps Pam did have a point. After all, hadn’t we Northerners grown up learning about the evils of slavery and the horrors inflicted upon slaves by their white masters?
That underlying message that we were all spoon-fed in grade school, that all slaves were noble beings, that all blacks came here in chains from Africa, that all white Southerners were brutal maniacs, supports the underpinnings of the movie version of The Help, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s somewhat better 2009 best selling novel. As directed by Tate Taylor, the movie is about the gulf dividing the rich white housewives of 1962 Jackson, Miss., and the black servants who clean after and care for their own children—in some cases, just as they had done for their current mistresses—and it is a case study in white liberal arrogance. Before pelting my house with rotten vegetables, bear with me just a bit. In the tradition of sentimental “message” movies from the ’60s and even ’70s, The Help relies on its audience’s complete sympathy with and acceptance of the stereotype of the martyr servant, a powerless woman who is in some ways the gentle doppelganger to the hysterical white heiress for whom she works. The black maid/nanny, often depicted as comfortably plump, is able to provide enormous stores of love and support for the white tykes under her charge, even as they challenge and even insult her. Meanwhile, the white birth mother is depicted as bejeweled, skinny, uptight, and more interested in social gatherings at the club than cleaning snotty noses.
In The Help, the black providers of all things wise and merciful are depicted primarily by two women, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia L. Spencer). The women they work for are in many ways, worlds apart; Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is bound to duty and tradition and what she thinks is propriety, whereas Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is basically poor white trash redeemed by a good heart and an even better marriage. But because this is a simplistic take on racial relations, these employers are lumped together, as part of “the problem.” Taylor gives us scenes depicting the often selfless work of the servants, as well as the rudeness with which they dealt, even as pretending not to hear. The part of the audience, or, rather, intelligent and sensitive Skeeter (Emma Stone), is meant to solace us with the fact that there is at least one white person in town who gets it, who understands that what Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers, whose assassination is touched upon briefly in the movie’s only gutsy moment, are trying to do is right and good.
Thanks to the performances of Spencer and especially Davis, their characters come to a life that doesn’t immediately leap off the page. The aforementioned gripping scene shows Aibileen, heading to the bus to go home after a long shift, hearing about a shooting, and first hurrying, than running, even tripping, over railroad tracks and pitted sidewalks as the lights of a Mississippi dusk fade to night, and the sense of impending doom, even on a routine trip home, is real and very frightening. For her part, Spencer’s Minny is used primarily for comic fodder, but she shows great empathy for the alienated Celia, providing her sound advice and encouragement. Even with the stunted dialogue and piss-poor vocal coaching, at which even the decades old Sanford & Son had the insight to poke fun, Spencer and Davis somehow transcend the Stepin Fetchit quality of the dialogue.
A braver movie would have given the servants more depth, maybe even would have presented one or two whom we out and out didn’t like and wouldn’t have wanted anywhere near our homes. A braver movie would have painted the white club ladies with more than one brushstroke, perhaps even going so far as to limn the limits of their own existences, the existence of their own silent rage. Granted, having no voting rights and fearing for your freedom, even your life, are weightier matters than having to deal with chauvinism and societal expectation, but couldn’t a more meaty narrative been made if instead of presenting two fractious yet caricature sides of an issue, we could have seen just a glimpse into shared indignities, sexual inequalities, burdens, mind numbingly repetitive nature of domesticity? The Help is the kind of movie at whose conclusion, the entire audience will stand and cheer, but the applause they’re hearing, giving, is really the sounds of their own hands patting themselves on the back for knowing so much more and so much better than those who came before them.