The Help – your annual serve of chicken-fried racism
I looked forward to this film – not only was Emma Stone in it, a promising actress with bite and vigour - but a whole bunch of established African American actresses were in it, and they were surely going to out-sass the sassy Emma Stone any day. Sass. I just like the word.
The problem, however, is that The Help is so blandly stereotypical - and in that manner so oddly racist by way of ignorance - that I couldn’t help feeling slightly stupefied by the whole film. Even the ending is a salute to not knowing, and not in that existentialist what-does-it-all-mean kind of way. The film simply finishes and you’re left thinking, ‘Yeah, but so what?’
Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, a young and ambitious journalist living in early-60s Mississippi. She decides to write a book called The Help, which is basically a collection of stories about the experiences of African-American maids working in the affluent white households of Mississippi. This central plot, of course, becomes a crutch on which the rest of the film can lean while it heaps on the aren’t-you-glad-you’re not-racist storylines. These centre largely around prissy beauty queen Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her succession of abused maids including Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer).
Hilly is one of those annoying, clichéd characters that seem to appear only in films aimed squarely at women. Hilly is a bitch, in the most racist sense of the word, and yet not a single explanation is given for her ignorance or her awful maliciousness. That, as a rule, drives me nuts, because it’s lazy work on the part of the scriptwriter. Unlike the line-blurring and excellent Mad Men series, this film makes no attempt to explore how people are adversely influenced by their society and yet remain good people in other ways. The Help‘s bland black-and-white approach (‘scuse the pun) permeates the entire film; either you’re a good guy, like non-racist Skeeter, or you’re Hilly Holbrook and you deserve everything that you get. The audience never discovers whether Hilly has a weakness, or a certain innate goodness clouded by her racism. You just get the one-dimensional megabitch, and that’s fun for about five minutes until her pouty face just gets repetitive.
Unsurprisingly, Skeeter finds it hard getting the maids she knows to open up, particularly while Hilly sails through the film verbally bitchslapping every maid she sees. Aibileen is the first to agree to talk to Skeeter, albeit under the cover of strict confidence. Skeeter smells a great book and needs more maids to speak up, but in frigid and racist times, getting anyone African-American woman to discuss details that would have them lose their job and most likely their freedom was always going to be a hard call.
What is sad about this film is that it had potential. It could really have delved quite deeply into the personal lives of these maids and the horrible indifference they suffered at the hands of white matriarchs and their rich families. We could have seen textured, complicated stories spill forth from a group of women who lived in a fascinating yet horribly depressing time. While this does not appear to be based on actual events (although this article seems to suggest at least Minny Jackson is real), fiction certainly presents an interesting idea. In volunteering to talk, these maids show immense courage, risking their jobs and even their lives to tell their stories. Yet The Help consistently seems to drift back time and again to Skeeter, the poor white girl who lost her own maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) in mysterious circumstances.
This is where the film seems patronisingly racist without seeming to be aware of it. The central plot illustrates my issue with this film most simply; gradually, through the power of the kind, non-racist white person, African-American ladies in early-60s Mississippi are able to free themselves from the painful bonds of their difficult lives. The Help hammers home Skeeter’s pivotal role as saviour (and just like Jesus, she’s always white). The maids’ far more interesting stories are sidelined as we are forced to watch the independent, ambitious Skeeter woodenly fall in love with a guy who gets hammered on their first date, the jackass Stuart Whitworth (Chris Lowell, who shall henceforth be known as Mr. Cute-in-a-Suit).
Emma Stone seems to have been peculiarly deprived of decent dialogue in this film – in fact, everyone has. Viola Davis deserved her Oscar nomination for Best Actress, particularly because she fares the best with her lot of ham-fisted lines. But I’ll be blasted if I know how Octavia Spencer managed to nab the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Could Spencer’s role as Minny have been more stereotyped, more sass-filled, and any less carefully drawn? The overwhelmingly white, male Academy looked at Spencer’s performance and must have thought ‘yes, that’s exactly how I remember my African-American maids looking and acting in the 1960s’. It feels as though they gave Spencer the award based purely on the fact that she didn’t go outside the very strict boundaries of what is expected of an actress in such a role. Being awarded an Oscar for this role seems, to me, to diminish the credibility of black actresses doing anything outside the box, because it praises an actress for sticking to the well-worn script of sass, fried chicken and depressing financial dependency. One scene with Spencer’s character Minny in it really kills me; it is one where she demonstrates her deep, abiding love for cooking fried chicken.
Before I watched this film, I had a certain stereotyped image of African-American women, drawn from countless stereotypical films from various eras of film-making. I know perfectly well that what I’ve learnt from these films doesn’t accurately represent the challenges African-American women faced and still encounter today. Yet after I watched The Help, nothing about this image changed. Apparently African-American maids in the 1960s lacked the intelligence, ability and goddamit, they may even have lacked the fried chicken recipes they needed to blast their way through the heavy swathes of ignorance that lay in their path. If that is the case, then fortune favoured the black maids saved by Skeeter Phelan.