Directed by Tate Taylor. Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard. 146 minutes. PG
The funny thing about history is that it exists only as we chose to remember it, to write it, to retell it. What’s inscribed in textbooks and studied in classrooms may not necessarily paint the reality of life as it once was, depending on the experiences that shape the biases which in turn voice the narrative of a particular moment in time. And as we all know, opinions about what happened differ: Just ask Oliver Stone what he thinks of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
And therein lies the problem of the genre of historical fiction, a temperamental spawn of an artist’s account of what-happened-when and well, the truth–sort of. Mississippi writer Kathryn Stockett’s rendering of African American life in the southern U.S. in The Help, earned her a spot on the NYT Best Sellers list as well as critical scorn for re-imagining the slavery of Blacks in the pre-civil rights movement 60s as a struggle concerning white folk themselves. (Things like where will whites allow their ‘help’ to use the toilet and what ingredients should they bake into pies.)
And director Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People) picks up on the book’s self-imposed dilemma and runs with it, all the way, including a meditation on what these answers would look like (comedic, it appears) in his adaption of the self-same book. The film takes place with Eugenia “Skeeter” (Emma Stone) returning home to Jackson, Mississippi from good “Ole Miss,” armed with a forward-thinking opinion and a fiery spirit to express it that burns brightly.
An aspiring writer, Skeeter is troubled to find out that the maid who has raised her has since left while she was away at college. Her mother, (Allison Janney) who’s battling cancer herself, tells her that she just “moved away” and to leave it be. Poor Skeeter suffers from being surrounded by her equally privileged friends who don’t share her view that Blacks are human, too. Oh, and being harassed for not having a boyfriend.
The problem with the film is that it equates Skeeter, as genuinely sweet to the core as homemade apple pie, and her “white-girl,” first-world obstacles, with the daily struggles faced by the help, Aibileen (the exquisite Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) in the culture of impunity that courses through their small town and even smaller minds.
But Skeeter taps into her desire be a Real Writer by convincing the women to put their lives on the line and reveal their experiences of working as a maid for rich white folk over the years. The overwhelming sense of white girl to the rescue, consecrating her as a hero for scribbling away on her notepad as Aibileen reveals how son died at the hands of other white people, is unnerving.
Performances by Bryce Dallas Howard, as Hilly, the incarnate of pure, unadulterated racism, and Jessica Chastain, as Celia, the sweet buxom bumpkin who’s banned from Jackson social circles for her man-eating figure and white trash roots, round out the film with a populous of white-girl clichés.
A flash of the genuine fear African Americans lived in seeps through the mushy, feel-goodness the film attempts to maintain while relaying a history of slavery and oppression. One moment, Aibileen is riding a bus on her way home from work at night, when the driver announces all blacks must exit as a black man has just been shot. Aibileen is running through the streets, and when she makes it home, she learns this was the actual shooting of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, gunned down in Jackson on his lawn by the Ku Klux Klan on June 12, 1963, while his family was inside. Just hours earlier, president JFK had delivered his famous civil rights speech.
The Help, is not based on a true story (although a certain Jackson maid begs to differ) but re-imagines black history through the wide-eyes of a white girl riding in on their despair on her white horse (why not?) and saving them from those more like herself. Admirable, but misses the point entirely. B