Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek, Aunjanue Ellis, Mary Steenburgen
Directed by Tate Taylor
Expectations: Low. I’m watching this only because I loved Jessica Chastain’s work in Take Shelter.
The Help is a film I had no interest in seeing upon release. As soon as I heard it was set in the 1960s South and revolved around “the colored help” I went into a tirade about how Hollywood loves to make movies about the serving black person. This one’s supposed to be OK because it’s against the backdrop of civil rights and we’re supposed to get uplifted by the end, as things have gotten so much better for our characters. Pah-leese. But then I saw Take Shelter and immediately became intrigued to see Jessica Chastain work her acting magic in whatever she was in. My significant other was going to watch this one anyway, so I decided to stick around and see what all the fuss was about.
Turns out The Help is a pretty good mainstream movie, but one that still bothers me on a number of levels. It’s much too happy and seen through rose-colored glasses for me to fully embrace, but for what it is (a female-driven mainstream film), it’s serviceable. The acting from the entire cast is where the gold is though, as literally everyone turns in a great performance. It’s not a very artful film, but I won’t be surprised if it gets nominated for lots of Oscars just on the strength of the performances. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are especially great, but Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone also do a great job. Oddly enough, it was Jessica Chastain that I was least impressed with, but I think that’s more from having high expectations than any real problem with her performance. She is completely different here and definitely shows a great range between the three 2011 films I saw her in (The Help, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter).
I would love for this type of black service person film to go away and make room for films that involve deep, rewarding black characters that aren’t relegated to the hero’s friend or the villain’s sidekick, etc. I also have something of a problem with films like this always coming from the white perspective. I’d much rather see a black filmmaker take on the subject, as I feel then it might come from a more personal and artful place than something like this does. It reminds me of the situation in 1989 when Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture Oscar, despite being a far inferior race relations film to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (which wasn’t even nominated). The problem is that race relation movies told about whites helping black slaves or service people make white people feel good about their white guilt, while intense, challenging films like Do the Right Thing force people to look at the real issue and actually deal with the feelings that arise. More of that, please.
I don’t want to take away from Kathryn Stockett’s personal experience of being raised by a black maid that I’m sure she drew on in writing the book, but I can’t help but find this watered down and a lot less than it could have been. It’s also ridiculously long and could have easily been thirty minutes shorter, if not more. I did love the shit pie story though, but then, with a shit pie they’re going directly to my vengeful, just heart.