Review by Ryan Wilson

The most interesting cinematic discussion of the last two weeks, and probably the entire summer, revolves around The Help, a solid old-fashioned period piece drama set in the Jim Crow South.

The controversy surrounding the film is possibly more interesting than the movie itself. Adapted from the popular novel written by Kathryn Stockett, the story concerns a open-minded white Southern college graduate named Skeeter who decides to chronicle in a book the realities of being a black maid in deeply segregated Jackson, Mississippi circa 1962. That premise alone brings with it three issues.

First is  that the “voice” of the narrative is that of a white woman affecting a black dialect, and so critics have asked what business Stockett and her character Skeeter have to affect such a voice. This brings up the always-fascinating discussion of ownership regarding a cultural history. Who should have the right to write or to film the story about the horrors of Jim Crow or slavery? It’s not a new argument. We can go all the way back to Mark Twain when he created the escaped slave Jim in Huckleberry Finn. Even in the medium of film this issue of ownership sometimes stalls a project, most notably back in the 1990s when both Ken Burns and Spike Lee were vying for the rights to tell the story of Jackie Robinson in a feature film. You may have noticed, no major Jackie Robinson film has yet been produced.

The second issue brought up by The Help is one of empowerment, meaning that according to the book and film, it takes the educated Skeeter to get the maids of Jackson to collectively share their stories. The question is then raised: does it really take a middle-class white girl to start a movement? Critics say no, that the black community was already sharing their stories in order to begin the Civil Rights movement from within their own community.

And finally there’s the issue of how these Southern women are portrayed, whether they transcend stereotypes or if they simply reinforce a limited characterization of their race and gender.

It’s difficult not to think about these concerns when watching the film. But The Help is such an emotional powerhouse of a movie, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long while, that political correctness can fade into the background if you invest in the characters, namely, the two maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Davis is especially strong as Aibileen Clark, the more reserved and realistic of the two. She gets the strongest moments of the film, which are also the smallest. We see her, for example, raising the children of white families, changing diapers and teaching them lessons, while at the same time not being allowed to use the family bathroom. Davis’ expression is one of weary resignation, but in her eyes we see an anger rising. That anger sees action in Spencer’s character Minny Jackson. If in Aibileen we see generations of Southern conditioning, in Minny we see the outrage and protest soon to change the South. Knowing she’s been wronged, she seeks justice, or at least vengeance. Spencer gets almost all of the good lines and the comic moments of the film. She’s the heart of the story, while Davis is the soul.

Having not read the book, I went into the film anticipating a sort of Jim Crow version of The Joy Luck Club, where the maids reveal in oral history the personal and cultural experiences unknown to a younger generation. That’s certainly included in the film, to an extent, but unfortunately the movie is more like How To Make An American Quilt, where the story of Skeeter, her personal life and her romantic life, links too closely with the main.

Emma Stone is certainly empathetic as Skeeter, just as Bryce Dallas Howard is certainly vicious as her nemesis, a demon of a debutant, a Southern Belle wanting to reinforce the social status quo. But caring for the subplot of how Skeeter fits into Jackson pales once we’ve seen how Aibileen and Minny go about their lives there.

In many ways The Help wants to be several different films, including Driving Miss Daisy. When Minny, for example, goes to work for a dysfunctional yet lovable housewife, we see shades of Morgan Freeman’s evolving friendship with Jessica Tandy. Yet while we may have seen all of these sorts of race relations before on screen, the performances still elevate the obvious message. First time director Tate Tayler is no artist, but he keeps every plate spinning. He moves us to the point of tears, but he also knows that he can’t end the film on mere sentiment. The final scene in which Aibileen finally confronts her employer is handled perfectly and reinforces how the themes of race and racism stay with us in everyday encounters.

Despite the many controversies surrounding the film, The Help is a reminder that we need more films that touch on the realities of race in America, of every era, not to mention more films staring great actors like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Here’s hoping The Help’s success helps the film industry as a whole.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College, Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011