Finally! A film about the civil rights movement in which the hero is a privileged young white thing instead of the tireless, self-sacrificing politicians or the downtrodden and racially vilified lower class blacks. The Help teeters perilously close to falling into the ‘white-person-helps-minority-group-fight-back-against-evil-white-people’ trap. A recent offender is Avatar, in which Jake Sully wears a Na’vi suit for a couple of weeks and then lectures them about their ancient civilization (admittedly, the Na’vi are fictional, but you get the idea). OK, OK, I’m being (mostly) facetious. Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help is actually rather even-handed in its depiction of the social mores in the United States during the tumultuous 1960s. That being said, when 30 seconds of screen time is devoted to one of the black housemaid’s life of poverty and relationship with her abusive husband, as opposed to the numerous scenes set aside for our white protagonist to be courted – and eventually dumped – by a random dude, you have to wonder whether writer/director Taylor really respects the gravity of the situation he’s depicting.
Emma Stone stars as Skeeter Phelan, a go-getting tomboy and wannabe journalist who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi after graduating from university, all educated and such. She discovers her mother (Allison Janney) has fired her beloved maid and nanny Constantine (Cicely Tyson) for mysterious reasons, and witnesses her former chums’ disrespect the rest of the town’s ‘help’. They include Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who mourns the death of her son while waiting on the Leefolt family and their precious baby girl; and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who must contend with the black-hearted Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her senile mother (Sissy Spacek). When Hilly tries to introduce a bill that will see separate bathrooms installed in homes for the black help to use, Skeeter plots to write a book from the perspective of these voiceless women. She secretly interviews Aibileen and Minny, who share with her their life experiences, cautious at every moment that their illegal practices could be unearthed and ruin their (already unenviable) lives.
The film is very easy to like – specifically thanks to Davis and Spencer, as well as the other leading and supporting ladies – but that might be part of the problem. The white characters are divided so clearly into categories of good and evil; everyone is either an unrestrained and hate-filled bigot, or a bleeding heart who really doesn’t want to be racist, but everyone else is doing it so they might as well too. To see a character like Hilly Holbrook be so blatant in her disdain for another race is to further separate us from the events of the 1960s. We sit and scoff at these small-minded Mississippians. “How could anyone be so racist and cruel?” Never mind that issues of immigration – legal and illegal – rage on today in Australia just as much as in America. The same goes for the class divisions of racial groups within our society. The Help takes place less than 50 years ago; this is barely history. There was a real opportunity here to hold up a mirror to the audience and our current-day prejudices, with a variety of complex characters who blurred the lines of racist and non-racist. With inhuman villains like Hilly, it becomes so much easier to disengage. We shake our heads, tut, and sympathise with the diversity-loving Skeeter. How much better a film would this have been if we were forced – yes, even unwillingly – to see a bit of ourselves in Hilly?
The Help deals with a loaded subject, and perhaps it’s unfair to lump the expectation of defining an entire era on the one film. Maybe we have to be content with the fact it’s focusing on a single facet of this plight. Now, do we chastise the film for whitewashing the civil rights movement, or do we applaud it for showing us both sides of this racial struggle? The film is neither offensive nor brilliant enough to earn either response. It is, however, an exceptionally performed and consistently (even over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime) entertaining drama. The film’s tagline is, ‘Change begins with a whisper’. Consider The Help ‘a whisper’. I look forward to one day seeing the ‘change’.
The Help arrives in Australian cinemas September 1, 2011.