Twenty-three years ago, someone made a movie about a plucky white girl who lives in the Kennedy-era American South but knows little of the day-to-day oppression that African Americans face there. After she learns the truth, our heroine recruits a sassy black lady to help her defeat the forces of fun-hating, bouffant-haired bigots who insist on segregating spaces that should be open to all.
That film is John Waters’ Hairspray, a good-natured camp fest that ridiculed, among other things, the self-congratulatory tone of message movies in which decent white people “discover” racism and do something about it. The Help, which has a similar basic plotline, could have used a dose of Waters’ self-awareness. What this adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel has instead are Hairspray-esque bouffants and broad caricatures aplenty, crowd-pleasing scenes of comic humiliation and a central set piece that the Waters of Pink Flamingos would have appreciated. It’s camp for people who want to feel like they’re seeing something educational and uplifting between the guffaws.
That’s not to say movies about Important Subjects have to be serious. But if they’re going to be taken seriously, they should tackle the complex realities of those subjects, rather than repeatedly going for the easy cheers, boos or laughs. Director Tate Taylor, who adapted the novel with Stockett’s blessing (they’re longtime friends), has done the latter. Still, the movie gets some substance from the strong cast, who breathe life into their wafer-thin characters.
Emma Stone plays Skeeter, the plucky white girl who returns from college to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., to discover that her childhood friends have blossomed into well-coiffed wives, mothers and bigots. Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) ignores her small daughter while the long-suffering maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) gently raises her. Queen bee Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) fires her maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer), for using the inside bathroom designated For Whites Only.
Eager to trade in her lowly local newspaper job for the status of a real writer, Skeeter hits on the idea of eliciting an oral history of “the help,” the women who raise the future leaders of a culture in which they themselves have no power and no voice. Skeeter starts encouraging the maids to do the unthinkable (and, under Jim Crow laws, prosecutable): speak their minds about the status quo.
It’s a powerful and intriguing premise. But the film idealizes the relationships between the maids and their charges almost as shamelessly as Gone With the Wind idealized Scarlett’s Mammy. (“You’re my real mother,” a kid lisps to Aibileen, in case we didn’t get the point.) The difference here — and it is a significant one — is that Davis gets to flesh out her character into a real woman with fatigue, regrets and frustrations. Aibileen doesn’t talk much when she’s not narrating the film, but her silence is eloquent. It’s that of a woman whose life experience has made her patient, but not a saint.
It’s good to have Spencer’s way-less-patient Minny for contrast. While she’s more of a caricature than Aibileen, she’s sharp tongued and hilarious, especially in her scenes with the equally caricatured Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the shanty-town bombshell who’s married her way into Jackson high society. Allison Janney brings depth and humanity to the role of Skeeter’s judgmental mother, and Howard makes Hilly’s glacial hauteur highly amusing.
Too bad she never gets a showdown with Stone. While Skeeter undermines the racism of her supposed friends with her writing, she doesn’t speak up and confront them — a puzzling omission from the film, given that we have to watch scenes of her telling off a caddish potential boyfriend and doing other standard female-empowerment-story stuff. It’s enough to make you wish that stories about the hidden lives of household help didn’t have to be so painstakingly told through the eyes of someone who’s not living them.