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Monday, August 29, 2011

Film Review | The Help

Mississippi Groaning

by Thomas Delapa

If any summer movie badly needs help, both dramatically and historically, it is, yes’m, The Help, which serves up a big slice of white-bread liberal fantasy about black life in the Jim Crow South.

Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help tells of the crusading “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a frizzy-haired, fair-skinned graduate of Old Miss who has a dream to help, if not free, the city of Jackson’s segregated black maids in the early 1960s. As improbably played by Stone, Skeeter seems less like a female Atticus Finch than a slumming cheerleader from High School Musical.

The daughter of wealthy bigots and friend to a coven of racist socialites, Skeeter nevertheless has a copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son prominently displayed in her room. But Skeeter’s enlightenment towards blacks really brightens when she’s shocked to discover that her friends’ African-American maids are forbidden to use the bathrooms in the homes where they work. (Um, do you suppose Donald Trump’s help is allowed to use his master bathroom?) Led by the vicious Hilly (lily-white Bryce Dallas Howard), these tinny magnolias decide that their maids should have their own outhouses, in-house.

As a theme (and odious punch lines), feces circulate throughout this revisionist sitcom drama, shot in glossy, overcooked colors and acted with an accent on melodramatic, Tyler Perry-flavor anguish. Director Tate Taylor, who wrote the script with Stockett, drops in period TV footage to remind us we’re in the tumultuous real world of the Medgar Evers and JFK assassinations, instead of Skeeter in Wonderland.

Taylor and Stockett also toss a cinder or two of Mississippi Burning into their hot pot. Skeeter reads from the appalling Jim Crow laws regarding the separation of the races, while the two central maids, the downtrodden Aibileen (Viola Davis) and the sassy Minny (Octavia Spencer), suffer constant indignities under the feet of their high-heeled, tight-skirted masters.

One could argue that the movie is faithful to the “spirit” of the times, but is it? A budding writer, Skeeter buzzes around town secretly gathering the oral histories of the maids, getting a tentative go-ahead for a book from a slick publisher in New York City. The film gives the fictional impression that Skeeter/Stockett courageously sought out the interviews and hammered out the exposé in the pivotal sixties. Perhaps Taylor needs a helpful reminder that Stockett’s novel was only published two years ago, while the author herself was barely out of diapers in the early 1970s.

If Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was the last great literary whitewash about the Civil War, plantation South, The Help goes to the other side of the fence, painting the whites as lazy, ignorant racists (excepting the pre-feminist Skeeter), while the black maids are canonized as saint-like figures who nevertheless adore the neglected white children of their loveless bosses.

Fiddle-dee-dee. As a liberal Hollywood fantasy dripping in white guilt, crudely mythologizing mammies into martyrs, The Help belongs right on the syrupy shelf next to The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance.


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