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Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘The Help’ — hits close to home, but it doesn’t hit the South hard enough

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

I wish I didn’t have to say this, but “The Help” is a chore.
Of all the summer movies, it’s the one most people have asked me about — with the possible exception of “The Tree of Life…” People still stop me so they can rant about how terrible it is.

Well, can’t say I didn’t warn you.

“The Help” isn’t a cheat. Nor is it pretentious. But it is, alas, pretty inept and, more than that, a disappointment.

As a native Atlantan, raised with “help,” the movie obviously hits close to home, which is probably why I wish it were better.

Kathryn Stockett’s out-of-nowhere bestseller examined the “peculiar “ (and I mean the word to resonate) situation that existed between servants (99 per cent African-American) and employers (99 per cent white) in the South for most of the 20th century. I wasn’t able to finish the book. Nothing against Stockett; I just don’t read much fiction.

So, while I admire her success and her tenaciousness, I have no idea how much of the problem arises from her text and how much can be blamed on the adaptation by Tate Taylor, who also directs.

(I give Stockett triple kudos for loyalty; as I understand it, Taylor is an old friend; and she promised him that, if there ever was a movie, he’d get to direct… that she would insist on it).

But, as a movie, “The Help” hands us a slap on the wrist when a knee to the groin or a fist in the face is what’s needed.

The movie is safe…cutesy in the manner that occasionally crops up in 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy” (a far more accurate and, ultimately, more troubling film).

Set in the early 1960s, “The Help”’ centers on three women: one white, Skeeter (Emma Stone, also in “Crazy Stupid Love”) and two black, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer).

A would-be writer, Skeeter hits on the idea (admittedly enlightened for the time…for the next 20 or 40 years, actually) of writing about her privileged circle in her Mississippi hometown from the maids’ point of view.

To do so, she enlists the initially reluctant Aibileen and Minnie. They are, after all, risking far more than she.
The movie acknowledges it takes a certain amount of courage for these women — who are eventually joined by a dozen or so others — to go on record with their stories. But Taylor has no idea how to convey any sense of danger.

The most villainous person in the piece is a silly, frilly, fussy Junior League type, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) who harrumphs and fidgets and is often just plain old’ mean (like an Alpha Dog sorority girl) with tiresome predictability. She’s like someone who wandered over from a crummy community theatre production of “Steel Magnolias.”

Atlanta’s Dana Ivey (though she hasn’t lived here in years) contributes a more matronly version of the same thing in a cameo as the bigoted president of the local DAR, but even she seems unduly reined in (interesting factoid: Ivey was the original Miss Daisy in the original off-Broadway production, but lost out to Jessica Tandy for the movie).

Davis, who’s wowed us in other films such as “Doubt,” is just too damn good to deliver a purely clichéd performance, but she has to summon every bit of her considerable acting chops to make her character even vaguely two-dimensional. At times, Aibileen, as written, comes off as impossibly saintly. Whatever grit’s there is, I’m certain, is provided by Davis.

Spencer is good at looking resolute and sick to death of Hilly and all her kind in Mississippi…and, for that matter, the rest of the world. She gets the movie’s “big” moment when she serves her former employer a slice of, um, humbling pie. But, like Davis, she seems constrained by the limitations of her role.

Meanwhile, Sissy Spacek nails the embarrassing role of Hilly’s cantankerous mother. Along with Davis, she’s the best thing in the film, but asking her to do a variation of “The Beverly Hillbillies’” Granny (swimming pools, movie stars) is a little like asking Seabiscuit to pull a plough.

However, Spacek, like Ivey, provides a connection to an infinitely better examination of the uncomfortably recent Old South.

In 1990, she and Whoopi Goldberg (fresh off her “Ghost” Oscar and still doing some real acting) co-starred in “The Long Walk Home.” Set within the context of the Montgomery bus strike in the mid 1950s, this extraordinary (and unaccountably under-appreciated) film accomplishes more in one scene more than “The Help” does in its sorry entirety.

Exquisitely acted, expertly written, and absolutely committed to making an audience uncomfortable (though, like “Miss Daisy, it has plenty of humor), “The Long Walk Home” is every bit the memorable picture “The Help” should have been.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


1 Comment

  1. danthompson3 August 16, 2011 10:46 am

    I found The Help entertaining and somewhat disturbing at times. I have read through half the book, and am having trouble reading some parts of it, as Stockett’s writing is sometimes very good, and other times difficult to follow. I grew up in Jackson in the 1960s, and I remember having “help” all through my childhood. Our maids, however, were not full time cooks and did not raise me and my 4 siblings, but were more part time housekeepers and occasionally cooked breakfast for us while my mother was busy getting ready to go to work. As children we never developed the kind of relationship with the help that is portrayed in the book and movie. I did have friends that had this kind of relationship with their help, but their economic status was higher than ours, and that might have played a part in it.

    I remember hearing of some of the unrest during that period, although I was only a child in the sixties. The odd thing is, no one talked about it. I never heard adults speaking of racial unrest or tension, and everything was hush-hush. And on top of that, my father worked in the news media. Most kids my age in Jackson just had normal childhoods, but occasionally we would hear of racial incidents in the news. Our parents’ generation would not speak on racial issues to us (children). That’s the way it was. The incidents portrayed in The Help are foreign to me even though I grew up right in the heart of Jackson, Mississippi. I’m sure things like that happened, and probably more often than I want to believe, but I cannot relate directly. One thing I can relate to though–integration. It happened the year I entered the 8th grade. Our school went from being 100% white to 60% black and 40% white. I had no idea what to expect on that first day, but looking back I remember how calm the transition was, or seemed to be. In particular I recall how well-behaved and well-dressed the black students were, and–how friendly. I made some new friends very easily the first week of school. I think they were just as tense and unsettled as we white kids were. I could see the anxious expressions on their faces. They didn’t know what to expect any more than we did. It was awkward during that first week, but eventually we resumed a normal routine of just being junior high adolescents. The teachers, however, were a different story. You could feel the tension they were experiencing. It’s as though they were being judged on how well they could keep everything together, although in my classes we had no more disruption than normal. We had a few troublemakers, but they were quickly weeded out. Back then, class disorder was not tolerated, regardless of the racial makeup of the class. I hear things are quite different today. I’ve been told by some friends of mine who were former high school teachers that chaos reigns and that teachers aren’t allowed to discipline or in some cases, even reprimand students. If that’s the case I don’t see how they do their jobs. I’m sure many can’t, and that’s a shame. It’s funny how adults are compared to kids. Left on their own, kids will associate and become friends with any child, regardless of race. It’s how we are molded as young adults and who and what influences us that can make us bigoted or prejudiced. These behaviors are learned, of course, and passed along from one generation to the next. I thought it was very touching the way Aibileen talked to Mae Mobley and tried her best to pass along the values of self-love and self-respect, in spite of her own conflicting emotions toward the white adults all around her. And it was heartbreaking how she described the way the children she raised turned out just like their parents when they reached adulthood. I like to believe that many of them didn’t turn out that way, and that those like Skeeter continue to find ways to heal the wounds of those tumultuous years.Report


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