August 13, 2011

MOVIES: The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011)

And so: The Help, which has suddenly become the most controversial movie in America, with (among other things) the Association of Black Women Historians issuing a statement of protest.

And yes, there are huge problems with the story and the way it's told. It's a movie that tells the story of black women through the eyes of a spunky white girl, and (yet again) defines the civil rights movement as the effort of heroic white people. It forces the black characters to speak in embarrassing, stereotypical dialect (one of the maids actually has to say, "Mmm, I loves me some fried chicken!") And it makes its principal villain so hideously ghastly that we don't really see racism, we just see her as generally nasty to everyone. (Her comeuppance at the hands of her former maid is the story's biggest miscalculation, a gratuitously nasty and vulgar joke that drags on forever as it's turned into a major plot point.)

Beyond the trivialization of the civil rights movement, the basic premise of the story -- would-be author Skeeter (Emma Stone) convinces the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi to tell her their stories so that she can publish them in a book -- is beyond implausible. It's 1963 Mississippi, for god's sake (the murder of Medger Evers is reduced to a bit of mere background detail); there is no way any of these women would tell any white woman what they really think of the white families they've worked for.

And yet, there is much to be admired here. Taken on its own terms, the story is effective; the laughs and tears flow as called for, and there are some genuinely moving moments.

The cast is superb, particularly Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as Aibileen and Minny, the two maids at the center of the story. Bryce Dallas Howard brings more depth to Hilly, the principal villain, than is to be found on the page; and Jessica Chastain is delightful as Celia, the "white trash" girl (the movie's term, not my mine) who can't break into Jackson's social circles. There are fine turns in smaller roles from Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Cicely Tyson; and while Emma Stone's character isn't particularly interesting, Stone continues to impress me with her sheer charisma and screen presence.

So, seriously mixed feelings. If you can accept the movie as the feel-good fairytale it wants to be, you may enjoy it very much. But I don't think I can accept it on those terms, and I'm not entirely sure that it's even appropriate to try.

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