There’s something about The Help that seems too clean, too perfectly shaped and trimmed along the edges. The film, adapted from the 2009 novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, is, among other things, about racism and inequality in the Deep South. These heavy themes of racial injustice have a long history of invoking the wrath of pontificating critics, especially when the issues are skirted over or given an outside voice, as Kathryn Stockett did in her novel. But, as far as I’m aware, authors are allowed to project whatever voice they wish, and while perhaps there are flaws in the vision and message of The Help, this doesn’t make it a bad film. Rather, The Help is a film full of interesting characters and a driving plot, a movie that takes controversial themes and packages them into a neat, shiny package with a ribbon on top.
The Help is set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. This is a time when segregation was in full swing, and where the Jim Crow laws were the law of the land. The South, and Mississippi in particular, were seen in terms of black and white. African-Americans, and African-American women in particular, were faced with very limited opportunities. Aibileen Clark, in a sublime performance from Viola Davis, is hired help for a family of Southern genteel. She takes care of the cooking, cleaning, and upbringing of the family’s young daughter. We learn that this young girl is the seventeenth white baby she has taken care of, and although her tired voice and weathered demeanor may suggest otherwise, Aibileen clearly cares for the young child. Therein lies the unfortunate circumstance in the lives of these lifelong maids; they nurture these young children until they’re old enough to realize the difference between being black and white, at which point the relationship abruptly turns from one of mutual care to one of master and servant. These complicated relationships between the maids and their employers forms the backbone of The Help.
Kathryn Stockett, the author of the 2009 novel this film was based on, received a lot of criticism for The Help’s portrayal of life from a black maid’s point of view. The dialogue, critics pointed out, was especially incriminating: the maids used an exaggerated Southern dialect, and the white characters did not. Thankfully, this criticism falls flat in the film, as the venerable talent of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (who plays the spunky Minny Jackson) provide a burst of charisma to the screen. The film shines when the spotlight is trained on the subtle eye movements of Davis, or the impeccable comic timing of Spencer. The cast is what makes the film enjoyable, and alongside Davis and Spencer lie more noteworthy performances from Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Jessica Chastain.
Although the film is entertaining, it seems to lack a little depth. The complicated issue of racial inequality is made as neat and unoffensive as the Southern Belles that populate the screen. The Help politely takes the stand of detached-yet-concerned observer, hoping to avoid controversy by sacrificing its voice. This, however, is exactly why the film so controversial. Using a sensitive issue such as race to drive a movie which, at its core, is not about race is a risky move. The film takes place in a bubble of its own niceness, and is watered down as a result.
The Help is a good film, a fun film, and a safe film. It’s a movie that is carried by its cast, with especially solid performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Director Tate Taylor chooses to play it safe here, and brings his audience a view of 1960s Mississippi that is careful not to tread on any toes. The characters in The Help may have opinions about what is happening in the film, but the film itself does not. For the feel-good movie of the summer, look no further.