Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer
Director: Tate Taylor
Publish and be damned.
There’s that old saying that it’s better to be talked about than to be not talked about, and wherever you go, there is certainly no shortage of people with a strongly-held opinion about this film, whether they’ve seen it or not. That made going into it with a clear head rather difficult – I found that as much as I tried to approach it without letting myself be swayed by what I’d heard, those thoughts kept creeping back whether I wanted them to or not, with the end result being that it was a tough film to enjoy on its own merits.
And to be fair, it has plenty of merits, most of them in the casting. Octavia Spencer may have won the Oscar (and she is indeed very good, finding all of the comedy in the role of Minny Jackson but also providing plenty of pathos) but Viola Davis was possibly even better. Her Aibileen Clark is the picture of loyal and respectful service, but suggests a weariness beyond her years, as if decades upon decades of being either ignored or poorly treated have robbed her of some of her life force. Whatever faults the film may have, Viola Davis does her darnedest to make you not think about them every second she’s on screen. There’s also excellent work from Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, and Bryce Dallas Howard amongst others, even though some of them are given fairly cardboard characters to work with (Howard in particular falls victim to this – she succeeds despite, not because of, the script).
However, I have issues with the way this film is framed. In the world presented by The Help, things change because Skeeter Phelan (Stone), a white woman, realises how poorly her friends treat “the help” and starts collecting their stories with a view to publication. This, in itself, is not a problem – the story of a white person gradually gaining consciousness of the racist sentiments held by her friends and striving to do something about it is a perfectly acceptable subject for a film, but it’s something you need to handle quite carefully, and this film can be rather glib at times, sometimes giving the air that Skeeter is singlehandedly trying to cure racism. For all the time that we get to spend with Minny or Aibileen and hearing their tales (told to us in their own voices, even if they’ll eventually be told in Skeeter’s, which is another troubling issue but not one I really have room to do justice to here), a distractingly large amount of the film is given over to relatively trivial aspects of Skeeter’s life, like her first real date with a man. As much as I’m always pleased to see Chris Lowell in anything (with that face, how could you not be?), I just felt that entire subplot felt misplaced here, since it had little relevance to the rest of the film and gave me the impression that some executive somewhere along the line felt that a mainstream audience wouldn’t be able to sit through over two hours of the struggle for racial equality if there weren’t the trials and tribulations of a middle-class white girl’s dating dramas in there for them to relate to.
Interestingly, one recurring criticism I’ve seen of this film is that it’s essentially a vessel for white people to pat themselves on the back and say how good it is that we’re not racist these days like people were at this point in time. I can’t speak for everyone, but I had a very different reaction: however simplistic the film’s treatment of its subject matter might be at times, I found it to be a very depressing reminder of how little we’ve moved on as a society, how people are still all too quick to throw bigotry, intolerance and hatred around under a veil of disingenuity, claiming that they somehow have the best interests of those they’re oppressing at heart. We may go about it slightly differently nowadays, and the goalposts may have moved slightly, but it’s still every bit as insidious as it was, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.