Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Help needs help

So I finally went and saw The Help the other day after about a month of searching for the right time to fit into my schedule and I’ve got to say, I was a little disappointed.

The plot of the film revolves around two black maids, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) who both work for white families, and a white girl named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). In the beginning, Skeeter has just graduated from college and is trying to become a writer but receives a decline letter from a publishing company in New York. However, the letter comes with an upside that if Skeeter can swing it, she should just start writing about things that bother her. Well guess what she decides to write about?

If your guess was the black maids then you were correct.

She ends up setting up interviews with Aibileen, who works for Skeeter’s best friend Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), trying to see what her life is actually like with this job. Aibileen then recruits her best friend, sass-mouth Minny, to join in with her. Aibileen and Minny’s side of the story really drives the interesting part of the plot, showing the audience all the nonsense that they have to put up with like taking blame (or not!) for things they didn’t do, raising white babies, and really ugly stuff like the penalties of dissatisfying particularly cruel white women.

Basically my problem with this movie had nothing to do with the three main characters, who were all very interesting in their own ways. Skeeter is an open-minded postgraduate trying to find out why color matters so much, why her childhood maid (who was really more like her mother) disappeared, what she’s going to do about her mother having cancer, and what the heck she’s going to do with her life. Aibileen is a soft-hearted woman getting over the loss of her 24-year-old son, trying to raise a child for another woman, and becoming a writer through Skeeter’s book. Minny is probably the most hilarious as the strong-willed maid who doesn’t take shit from anybody (though she can sure dish it out, pun intended).

However, this movie has a problem that no one seems to be able to really solve which is: how the hell can you dare to make a melodrama about such a horrific time period? There seems to be the same problem in The Secret Life of Bees. It’s almost like a reverse Gone With the Wind, in which the main plot is driven by a white person who is sympathetic to the black situation. And, granted, The Help at least has Aibileen as a narrator to equal things out a bit, but seems to fall into the same mold. The story is pretty good but the minor characters become caricatures in that kind of a backdrop. Therefore there are the three realistic characters but there are also The Sadistic White Bitch, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard); The Simple-Hearted Hick, Celia (Jessica Chastain); and the Bad Mother, Elizabeth.

There aren’t really very many black characters to even out the obnoxious white ones, though they obviously tried to. You might spot the soda jerk as Lafayette from HBO’s series True Blood and the one minor maid Yule Mae is impressionable but that is about it.

There also seems to be a serious lack of the actual danger surrounding these women and their project. Although the book makes a point to highlight what would happen to them if they were caught, the movie settles with one major hate crime to cover it all. But it kind of doesn’t do the time period justice. This is a time when people were still being lynched, when interracial marriage was illegal, when literally anything a black person did wrong was punishable by creative forms of torture. Yet Skeeter flits in and out of Aibileen’s house with nothing but a scarf on her head assuming no one will bat an eyelash.

All in all, not bad, but decidedly unrealistic, which I guess is what it had to be in order to be a heart-warming tale instead of a terrifying documentary.

3 outa 5 stars.

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