There is much to complain about in The Help. For one thing, the black folk cluck around like uniformly “good” hens in a hen house. This makes us sympathize with them, of course, but it tells the story from Whitey’s perspective, which means that it’s impossible to get a more realistic impression of what it was like to be a maid in Jackson, Mississippi on the eve of the civil rights movement. The black and white in The Help is literally black and white – so much so that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for placing film in 2011, when we already have a black President. However, having said all of that — and it needs to be said — The Help is full of what will undoubtedly be the year’s best ensemble and supporting acting for women. And for that, it gets a major pass.
At the top of the list is the heartbreaking portrayal of Aibileen by Viola Davis. She doesn’t get the laughs that the equally brilliant Octavia Spencer gets but her slow burn shows a versatility away from, say, her character in Doubt. The main thrust of The Help is not so much segregation and racism – although that runs through it too – but it’s this notion that the maids were really part of these families because they raised the children instead of the mothers. Somehow, even the white women who grew up with black mother figures grew up to hate blacks. To that end, the heart of this film is Aibileen who is with her last white baby as the film opens.
Aibileen is a natural writer, someone who jots down her own stories in her journal and had high hopes that someone in her family would end up being a writer. Yes, if you’re wondering, this has Oprah written all over it (Nate Berkis’ name appears in the production credits) and if Oprah were still around, The Help would get the full treatment, which had me wondering – is it better without that in terms of the Oscar race? But of course, no black maids were writers then, so Aibileen has to channel her words through the white writer in the film, the unfortunately named Skeeter (a wonderful Emma Stone).
I guess my main gripe with Davis’ character is that it would have been interesting to see her be the one to write the book — and then just have a white person help her get published. There is something ultimately unsavory about the idea that the white character reaps the career benefits on the backs of these black women whose stories were told. Since the film is based on a novel, not on a true story, I kind of wish the author had given a little more credit to Aibileen to be the one with the courage to get the project going. But none of that takes away from the mesmerizing turn by Davis, who should probably be the one to beat for Supporting Actress this year, unless of course they run her in lead and then she’s got to stare down Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, for starters. In supporting, she seems to have a better chance at a win. But why not put her in lead? She probably deserves it, although Emma Stone seems to be the lead as well.
There are so many great performances in The Help it’s hard to decide which of them will be considered for supporting Oscars. A SAG ensemble nod should be a clear and easy get. Best Picture could work if the critics went for it and it made a lot of money. But here are the standouts for me:
1. Viola Davis — for once she gets an opportunity to really show what she can do as an actress – she isn’t required to just be the “Stoic Negra” – she is funny, calm, hysterical, angry — you’d think she was playing a white woman. Just kidding. Davis has been circling the Oscar scene for a while now but she finally might see some gold.
2. Octavia Spencer — this is your more traditional Oscar supporting performance as she all but steals the show. Spencer finds the funny in every scene. She’s great in the quieter scenes too. If you had to pick two from the film, you can’t go wrong with Spencer and Davis.
3. Emma Stone – at first it appears that her character is going to be yet another too-pretty-for-the-part portrayal but Stone’s natural beauty is muted enough here to reveal a more authentic and believable character. She nails the tougher emotional scenes quite well. She’s one to watch — as I would love to see her really vamp it up in a part, like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.
4. Jessica Chastain – Chastain was not given all that much to do in Tree of Life but in The Help she explodes off the screen as the socially undesirable blonde bombshell. Oscar loves him the dumb blonde, sexually free types so there is a good chance she could earn a nomination instead of the above two. Chastain lets it all hang out emotionally – with a firestorm behind her pasty white skin. Of all of the white characters hers is the most interesting. Otherwise, it seemed like there should be less of the white people and more of the maids.
5. Allison Janney – Janney’s role takes a while to reach fruition — as she seems at first to be just one of the mean background white ladies. But eventually, it takes hold as she’s given more time to explore her own relationships with “the help” and with her daughter (Stone).
6. Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson – of course, Ms. Spacek is always good — but it’s always nice to see her on film anyway. And Cicely Tyson is another living legend. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have much of a part but she does very well with limited screen time.
I thought Bryce Dallas Howard gave it her all but she was too over-the-top to be believable and very nearly ruined the film, I thought. I hate to say such a thing as she is really turning out to be a good actress, but I think someone should have told her to tone it down somewhat – give the character some air to breathe. We all have our good moments and our bad moments. It might have been nice to see a little less of Howard’s bad moments and maybe more of her good moments.
All in all, The Help was not a bad film. It’s not a great film either. The actors pull it through and the idea that is all too rare in Hollywood films now that, as the bumper sticker says, well behaved women rarely make history. Kick some doors down, take no prisoners and never let anyone tell you that you have to shut up just because of the color of your skin or the organ that’s between your legs.
Finally, the real story here is not necessarily the 1960s. We have a very similar dynamic going on right here in Los Angeles with illegal immigrants in important domestic roles in our homes. The hatred and fury against them, while not quite what it was in Jackson, is to be noted. Hopefully The Help might infuse some hard truths on both sides of the fence.