Thursday, December 1, 2011
Finally saw this film and can see why it was highly praised and equally strongly criticized.
What's good about it is the story-as-story sucks you in and pays off with some strong emotional satisfaction. It brought tears to my eyes several times, as well as gave me a few laughs. Much of that can be attributed to the acting.
Emma Stone in the starring role has turned into everything Lindsay Lohan's younger years seemed to promise for her career as an adult actor before she got derailed by her problems. Stone has a few repetitive quirks that may become mannered if she keeps them much longer, but they work for her character in THE HELP pretty consistently.
Viola Davis is once again a wonder to behold on screen, as she anchors every character she plays in a reality so tangible you feel like you know her from the moment she first appears on screen, and have known her forever by her last scene.
Octavia Spencer is the revelation of the film, as many critics and audience members have testified to, but so is the always unique embodiment of character that Leslie Jordan brings to a small role that almost steals the movie as the newspaper editor.
Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson do their usual screen magic. Mary Steenburgen does a good job too, though in a role that wastes her talent and screen presence.
But the criticism is correct too, because almost every character is a stereotype, most of them overdone, some of them way overdone, though to perfection, like Jessica Chastain as the newly rich "white trash" wife of the wealthiest male character, or Bryce Dallas Howard as "Hilly" the racist female villain of the book and film.
The author of the book was criticized by many for hiding a not so subtle racism behind the guise of attacking historic racism. Set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, the story is meant to expose the complexities of relations between well-to-do "white" Southern young wives and their definitely-not-well-to-do and no longer young "black" maid/nannies.
Supporters of the book and movie point to how much of an expose the story is, even if retrospectively, of how hypocritical Southern racism was in family life, particularly in terms of women. It's "a women's movie" in the sense that all the males are secondary or nonexistent characters. The story is as much about "white" racism as about "black" oppression, and the reaction to both by those brave enough to fight it (thus the Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer characters).
Interestingly, most of the criticism has come from African-Americans, including "The Association of Black women Historians." (Here's a blog that delineates some of that criticism, mostly of the book.) The criticism is easily understood, e.g. that the "black" maids speak a distinct dialect from the "white" characters, that "black" husbands are either brutal or long gone, or that this is the perspective of a white author and a white director and misses the more complex realities of that time and place for African-American domestics, as well as letting the white male characters almost completely off the hook for their common sexist as well as racist treatment of their "black" domestics.
But what that criticism misses is that in the movie there are several "good" African-American male characters, either on screen or referred to, and that the "white trash" character is as stereotypical as any of the "black" characters, as are in fact all the female characters who dominate the story.
Having experienced the segregated South at very close range when I was stationed there at the time the movie is set, where I had a relationship with an African-American woman my age (we were both twenty at the time) who had worked as a domestic in a "white" household, I know that the characters in THE HELP are stereotypes, and that the movie obviously whitewashes (literally) the common "white" male boss's inappropriate and sometimes much more than inappropriate racism coupled with sexism toward any "black" female help.
But the movie does get the main emotional and psychological high points correct enough to still make it a good story. And the actors, despite the cliches in their characters as written, make each role so real they transcend the limitations of the writer's easy categorizing.
In other words, it's one of those movies about the South and race that oversimplifies too much and yet manages to also probe some aspects of those subjects that gets at some deeper truths that seem relevant to not just our recent history but our present time. All we have to do is look at the response to our president to see how many still cling to old ideas about race in this country, and have a hard time seeing past it. And I'm not just talking about "white" folks.
[In fact, a movie could be done today about "Mexican" and other "Latin" "help" in restaurants and households etc. not being treated so well either, and stereotypically, etc.]