'The Help': Served by Huge Talent
The best-seller stirred up debate about white people telling black stories. Does the movie put the controversy to rest?
The town's Junior League president, Tilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), a bully in a beehive, has decided that white bathrooms should be strictly verboten for black domestics. So she launches her "Home Health Sanitation Initiative" -- endorsed by the White Citizens' Council, because, don't you know, blacks carry diseases? -- and insists that all her friends build bathrooms for their maids, too. Anyone who has spent any time among belles of a certain class and attitude will recognize -- and appreciate -- Howard's spot-on depiction of Southern-fried passive-aggressiveness served with a savage smile.
Tilly will get hers, of course -- and then some. The thing is, while the servants are trapped by their lives, the white women are also trapped, albeit with a better wardrobe and a whole lot more free time. But a gilded cage is still a cage. Only Skeeter will find a way to escape the strictures of Southern womanhood.
The film gets a lot of things right -- the accents, the flavor of small-town Southern life. The performances are uniformly strong, from Allison Janey as Skeeter's domineering mother to Sissy Spacek as Tilly's doddering but not entirely demented mother to Aunjanue Ellis as the ambitious maid who just wants to send her twins to college.
But there are some things that it doesn't get right. While the movie purports to tell the stories of the help, it's still done mostly through the gaze of white people. Black men don't exist, save for brief snippets of a Martin Luther King-esque preacher, a book-reading soda jerk -- and newsreel footage of Medgar Evers.
We never see Minny's abusive husband, just her bruises. Nor do we ever find out what happened to Aibileen's husband. The white men in The Help don't get the same treatment -- they're there, present, perhaps doddering about in the background and inserting foot into drunken mouth, but at least they're visible. And I can't help wishing that the filmmakers had included the real reason Skeeter's maid, played by Cicely Tyson, is forced to leave town. (Hint: In the book, it has a lot to do with why her daughter turned out so light-skinned.)
Some of the comedic moments, particularly those involving Minny, are discomfiting. (Do we really need to hear her go on and on about how much she loooooves fried chicken?) Often, The Help's solution to handling difficult subject matter is to leaven it with humor, the better to make it palatable to a mainstream audience. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying, but sometimes laughter trivializes the fact that, yes, you should be crying.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.