The Help: Getting by with a Little

The Help OnesheetI was in a bad mood. Maybe it was my late encounter with the enemy, my new roommate, the howler monkey. Maybe it was the too-cheerful trailer. But I was expecting the worst from The Help. When I see a trailer that contains too many face-splitting smiles, I get nervous. Like the cheerful smile you get from a howler monkey in the pet store. Then, when you get him home, the only face that gets split is yours, and not in the good way.  So I wasn’t expecting a great deal from The Help.

But I’m happy to say there’s a good deal to recommend this movie. It’s an old-fashioned story set in the segregated South of the early 1960’s, a story we’ve seen before about what used to be called “race relations,” but here it’s mixed with a streak of Steel Magnolias humor and irreverence that makes the movie fresher than it might have been.

Emma Stone of the laughing eyes plays Skeeter, a young woman who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and who now returns from college to start her life as a writer. But what to write about? She notices the way the black maids are mistreated by the very women she grew up with, and decides to write a book that tells their stories. The movie is mainly about her efforts to reach out to the maids, an act that violated state law. Setting the story against the backdrop of the civil rights movement gives it additional weight.

But what really sets this movie apart is the performances.

The central characters are the maids, especially Abileen, played by Viola Davis, who has a way with characters restrained by circumstances but seething with conviction and passion. The first time I was aware of her was when she played a small role in Doubt. She was so good she took the movie away from Meryl Streep, no small feat. And she delivers the same kind of powerful performance here but with a bigger canvas.

The other maid at the center of the story is Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, whose nature is the opposite of her best friend’s. Where Abileen bites her tongue and bides her time, Minny speaks her mind and acts on it in ways that get her into more trouble.  Spencer’s power pairs well with Davis’s, and the two serve as the binary stars of the story’s universe.

But wait? Didn’t I miss someone? From the trailers, you’d think Emma Stone is the main character, and in a way she is. She does a fine job, a tomboyish beauty with range. But as The Sleeper pointed out, she’s really the observer, the Nick Carraway, of the piece, the catalyst that sets the complications in motion. Yes, she has a satisfying arc, but what arc can compare to the arc of characters going from the stranglehold of racism to the first glimmerings of equality?

Even the minor performances in this movie are exceptional.

Sissy Spacek does a delightful turn as a southern matron who, despite being in the first stages of dementia, still has more on the ball than her primly racist daughter. And Alison Janney plays Skeeter’s mother as a character with one foot in the old world and one tentative toe in the new. And the great Cicely Tyson does more acting with her lower lip than any twelve actors.

How is it that a fairly inexperienced director, Tate Taylor, could evoke such strong performances? The late Sidney Lumet used to say that the most important aspect of making a film was the casting, and Taylor got it very right. But I think it’s more than that. Despite many decades of attention to the need for racial equality, our films and television shows still don’t reflect the true diversity of this country. A 2010 article in The New York Times shows that, in its 80-year history, Oscars have been awarded to African-American actors only fourteen times. So when they get cast and, better still, get opportunities to play three-dimensional characters, they know it’s more than another paycheck, so they bring their A-games.

Look at Nelsan Ellis’s performance, for instance. Fans of True Blood will recognize him as Lafayette, the gay fry-cook and one-time V-dealer who’s also a spirit medium. In The Help he plays a waiter with only a handful of lines, but his posture alone conveys the rich history of his character’s self-image and hope for a better life.

There isn’t a sour note in any of the performances.

If there are problems, they’re at the writing level. One of the key events of the movie is described as “the terrible awful,” and as funny and shocking as it is, Taylor milks it too many times. And to drive home the theme, the movie’s debutante racists mouth the most ridiculous forms of racism. It has always seemed to me that racism is much sneakier, the way a realtor once warned me away from certain areas of the city as being “too urban.” But maybe the ridiculous dimensions of racism need more attention, need to be dragged
into the light. And after all, it is a comedy, or a comedy-drama, or whatever it is we’re calling movies that make us laugh one minute and cry the next.

By the way, we went to a weekday matinée of The Help. The audience was larger than the audiences we’d seen for Transformers, Green Lantern, and Cowboys and Aliens—combined. And we were a mix of ages and races, not just a bunch of fourteen-year-old white boys. I’m all for movies that please fourteen-year-old white boys. Heck, I am in essence a fourteen-year-old white boy. But how about a little variety? The audience at The Help shows that different generations and different ethnicities are hungry for stories they can identify with. Hollywood, you didn’t seem to get the message with the success of The Blind Side. Are you listening now?

I’d write more but it’s time for the monkey’s next appletini . . .

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Author: Brent Spencer

I'm a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and screenplays. My most recent book, a memoir, is Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son's Search for His Father. I live on an acreage in eastern Nebraska and teach creative writing at Creighton University. You can find out more about me and at http://brentspencerwriter.com. (Photo credit: Miriam Berkley)

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