Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Love: The Help

Last year, in an effort to see what all the fuss was about, I read Kathryn Stockett's massive bestseller The Help.  To put it simply: it's not my cup of tea.  As a book, I found the story a little too loaded with artificial sweetener, rather dull, filled with easy outs, and somehow chock full of accidental implications that I found peculiar, and at times rather troubling.  That summer, I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was that bothered me so much about The Help.  I was bothered, in part, by its niceness.  I was also disturbed by what I remember as a lack of temporal markers; it was a book set in the early 60's that barely acknowledged sea changes in pop culture.  Then, of course, there was the way Stockett had written all the African American women in dialect, while their white Southern 'bosses' all seemed to speak perfect English.  Above all, perhaps, I found it a prosaic yawn that reached for gravity, but was content to step back and avoid upsetting its reader too much.  You know, the type of book Oprah's book club members might pick up to feel an odd justification or nostalgia for the dark times.
 Yes, negativity and cynicism when it comes to best selling fiction are strong suits of mine, but I'm also able to admit when something decent arises out of the sub-par popularity contest for space on your Kindle.  What I mean to say is that the film is a noted improvement upon the base text.  This is remarkable, considering how closely the movie's authorized screenplay actually follows Stockett's novel.  In translation, however, the pieces fall together.  Certain injustices are evened out, and Miss Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), the young white college graduate who takes up a hot topic civil rights interview session essentially to grab the attention of a New York liberal editor, is pushed back in favor of the film's true stars: the actual help.  Where the book left me completely cold, finding little more than anecdotal evidence of dimension in several of the characters, the film's great saving grace lies in the strength of the attitudes, sparkling quips, and all-time lows of its on-screen personalities. There are some fabulous  performances in The Help, and they're the type Stockett's writing wasn't strong enough to embody.  The actresses, specifically Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, manage to transform these characters so thoroughly into people we enjoy watching that the result distracts completely from the side controversies, plot defects, and miscellaneous baggage the story comes with.  
For those not in the loop on literary trends, The Help follows our young heroine Skeeter as she returns home to her small, bigoted Mississippi town upon that aforementioned graduation.  In her absence, her social circle has opted not for education, but for marriage, babies, and bingo luncheons.  The ladies are a sharp turn from Skeeter in nearly every respect.  They're cold, plastic, phony Stepford wives who fall at the mercy of their evil leader, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).  Hilly's word is law in these parts.  She sets all precedents.  Of course, Hilly is a tremendously callous racist whose primary hypocritical platforms include forcing the help to use toilets outside of the house (because she believes black people are some sort of filthy sub-species of human), saving the starving children in Africa, and exiling bubble blonde new kid Celia Foote from joining refined society.  Too much.  Skeeter can't handle it any more than we can, and begins communicating in secret with Aibileen (Viola Davis) and later, Minny (Octavia Spencer), the trampled upon maids of her former friends.

What follows, naturally, is a tale of bonding and self-discovery.  We're supposed to be touched by the struggles of Aibileen and Minny, indeed we are.  Davis and Spencer shine outright, Davis, in particular is a shoo-in for Academy Award recognition.  She carries herself with an uncertain grace, like someone who knows she deserves better, but has been shot down too many times.  From her lips, Stockett's condescending dialect plays more like the song of the South, and less like a marker of the difference between races.  She's got heart, and consequently we care about Aibileen's relationship with her best friend Minny and her trust in Skeeter.  Partnering up with our love for Aibileen is our loathing of Hilly Holbrook, who Howard plays with such an exacting nastiness that it will be hard to separate the soft-spoken actress from the sharp tongued villainess seen here. Stockett's framework is twisted so that the story is allowed to filter more through her than the faulty heroism of another white protagonist.
Still, while The Help's acting transforms its narrative, and makes for a solid enough piece of entertainment, I couldn't help but find myself struck by so many of the controversies surrounding the story.  The film may correct quite a bit, but it still can't completely wash away the quarter ton of sugar dusted over its rough edges.  There's something to be said, I think, about Viola Davis (who has been fantastic in other roles) breaking through as a household name in a roles as a resurrected, vitriolic Mammy figure. There are questions to be asked too about what it is that makes Skeeter so enlightened when her peers are anything but.  We must remember that the time portrayed was a truly dark era for the women who are at the heart of this story.  We must remember further that though Skeeter does assist in repairing the pride and self-respect of a woman like Aibileen, the danger she's in at the film's conclusion is not a cause for rejoicing.  The risks these women take would have been very real, by my understanding.  Lives would have been on the line, homes, families, and reputations as well.  Strip these women of one of their only means to the crucial end of supporting their families, and nightmares may follow.  Sometimes, it seems as though though Skeeter means well, she has no way of really understanding what she's working at.  Sometimes, it seems as though the film is content reducing dangerous racial tensions to petty cat fights.  Sometimes, it seems as though it's been created as a vehicle for white viewers to first recoil, and then feel uplifted by a story that's only half finished.  It's nice, but I sat waiting for the bottom to drop out.  When it didn't (and did you really think it would?), I only felt nervous. We do not see the real darkness here.  We only see shadow plays.  

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