Produced by Dreamworks Pictures
Directed and written by Tate Taylor from Kathryn Stockett’s novel
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios
Produced by Reprisal Films
Directed and written by John McDonagh
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
I went to see The Help fully expecting it would be a travesty of race relations in the 1960’s South. I’m sorry to report my expectations were dashed. As undeniably mush-headed as it often is, The Help rises above its simpleminded liberal impulse by virtue of its black actresses, Viola Davis and Olivia Spencer, who somehow contrived to believe the script director Tate Taylor crafted from Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same title. At times their performances almost make you believe, too.
Here’s the premise. Spunky Skeeter Phelan (played by spunky Emma Stone) has recently graduated from Ole Miss and come back to her home in Jackson, Mississippi. She has no sooner unpacked than she’s out interviewing the black maids in town so she can write up their lives and score a bestseller. As events unfold, she discovers there’s more to her subject than she had supposed. Once she wins the trust of two disgruntled maids, Aibileen (Davis) and Minny (Spencer), they begin to vent—and what an ill wind they blow. Over the past 20 years they’ve been subjected to a constant diet of disrespect, low wages, and job insecurity. What emerges is an often affecting portrayal of the deeply entangled relations between whites and blacks, fraught as they were on both sides with half-deliberate misunderstandings and grudging respect.
Unfortunately, Taylor’s script lacks nuance. The black women are all long-suffering victims displaying wisdom and nobility in equal measures. Their white employers, on the other hand, are either mad racists or cowardly conformists who accept institutionalized injustice unquestioningly. This picture isn’t entirely false, but it is incomplete. Many whites and blacks transcended the inequity of the South’s social system, coming to understand and care for one another in spite of their differences. Of course, writers and filmmakers are not obliged to tell the whole story of any situation, but when covering the still-raw tensions of racial complaint, they would seem obligated to provide a fuller, more balanced portrayal than we find here. But Stockett and Taylor have eschewed such balance. They prefer caricature. It’s so much more soothing for their enlightened white audience. In the tradition of To Kill a Mockingbird, this film is yet another chance for white Americans above the Mason-Dixon line and west of Arkansas to sneer at a South about which they know very little. They’ll leave the theater wrapped in a mist of Gregory Peck virtue. Even those who have never conversed with black people will enjoy the vicarious pleasure of rescuing darkies by the busload. No wonder several black commentators have expressed annoyance with the film.
The movie does include a real rescue mission, however. It’s performed by Davis and Spencer, who save the film from its white sentimentality. They play two maids among many who are daily bused into Jackson’s wealthy precincts to clean houses and mind white children for niggardly wages. (Look up that word before you report me to the NAACP.) As Aibileen Clark, Davis refurbishes the cliché of black nobility. With steely self-restraint, she works for the flighty, fatuous Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly) who neglects her youngest daughter because she’s a four-year-old fatty not likely to fit into a Southern belle’s cotillion gown at 18. While silently agreeing with this judgment, Aibileen (who has raised 17 white toddlers already) strives to instill self-respect into this one as she has the others. She’s trained the girl to recite a mantra: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” As she repeats the formula with the youngster throughout the film, you realize that it applies to her as well. To rescue herself, she must embrace them also.
Spencer plays the sharp-tongued Minnie, the much-fired maid who lacks Aibileen’s restraint. Until she runs afoul of the archvillainess of the piece, one Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, devouring the wallpaper’s magnolia design), Minnie has been able to keep herself employed by virtue of her superb cooking. With her pear-shaped body and large, all-seeing eyes, Spencer holds the film together. Every time she leaves the screen, the proceedings begin to limp a bit. Minnie doesn’t have a white toddler to nurture. Her task is much more difficult. She must care for Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek), Hilly’s aging mother who suffers from advancing Alzheimer’s and her daughter’s studied neglect. In one of the film’s few nods to white decency, Missus Walters is portrayed as having genuine respect for Minnie. She’s a remnant of an older South that had an appreciation for the blacks who were an integral part of their society and culture. That Hilly eventually shoves Missus Walters into a nursing home speaks to the film’s subtext. By the 1960’s, those who had previously negotiated the troubled terrain of the South’s apartheid system were dying off. Their children were taking over but didn’t have the assurance necessary to sustain the system. They were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their way of life and yet were determined to perpetuate its benefits. As with any ancien régime afflicted with self-doubt, they were becoming desperate and strident, making for an unstable political situation. Taylor reminds us of this dynamic with contemporary television coverage: Schools are being integrated, Medgar Evers is shot, Martin Luther King, Jr., counsels tactical forbearance. America is changing, and the future seems increasingly uncertain. Some, like Hilly, decide they must do more to keep blacks in their place. She’s begun a statewide campaign to pass a law that would require black servants to use separate bathrooms in their employer’s homes. “They have different diseases than us,” she primly explains. Her obsession will yield unsavory results. When she catches Minnie using her toilet, she goes haywire, firing her and turning her out in the middle of a tornado. A few days later, Minnie returns with a chocolate pie. (Caution: Spoiler ahead.) Thinking it a peace offering, Hilly sits down and digs in with gusto, praising Minnie’s cooking prowess. She even offers the maid her job back, but at a substantial cut in pay. Minnie, who has been standing at the table, coldly turns down the offer and says, “Eat my shit.” It takes a few repetitions before the startled Hilly understands she’s eating a pie made with more than chocolate. It’s a joke worthy of Chaucer, save that, unlike a Canterbury tale, its staging is quite implausible. It doesn’t seem probable Hilly would sit alone to devour a pie in front of her former maid, for one thing. For another, Minnie would surely have kept her mixing bowl shelved rather than risk being arrested, beaten, and worse. Promoting such a coprophagous indulgence among white powerbrokers was not a laughing matter in Jackson, circa 1960—nor today, for that matter.
Of course, a large portion of the New York audience with whom I watched the film loudly expressed their pleasure at seeing the awful Hilly get her comeuppance. But I think there may have been something more going on, something unintended by Stockett and Taylor. At a guess, I’d say the delighted members of the audience recognized in Hilly’s scatological discomfiture—at least subliminally—that they were watching a metaphor turning suddenly and astonishingly literal. It’s as though during a laudatory disquisition on, let’s say, Martin Luther King, a cow draped in churchly vestments hoofed onto the stage and mooed soulfully at the audience to remind them to keep their doubts to themselves. Even the august doctor would no doubt have allowed himself a chuckle or two. Minnie’s shit is her anger become stinkingly actual. But some members of the audience could be pardoned for recognizing in her steaming waste something more: the objective correlative of the black pathologies that have been served to America over the last 50 years. The well-insulated elite has repeatedly put this malodorous dish on the national menu with full expectation that ordinary white folks would swallow it uncomplainingly. The left has enjoyed the delicacy to no end; others, not so much.
The Guard, an Irish film, is a less-heralded investigation into race relations, but it’s a good deal funnier than The Help.
Directed by John McDonagh, brother of the playwright Martin McDonagh, it’s uneven but has some priceless moments amid its nearly nonstop stream of vulgarity and shoddy camera work.
The game’s afoot when black FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) shows up in Connemara to enlist the aid of a roomful of Paddy cops. He’s pursuing a trio of drug dealers, two Irishmen and a Brit, who are scheduled to receive a shipment of cocaine from the New World. A puckish, not to mention porkish, sergeant in the back row raises his hand and asks with perfect sincerity, “Isn’t it the black lads that do the drug dealing?” Cheadle squints in disbelief and then decides to ignore the insult. But the questioner, Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), is not to be put off and persists in his impolitic profiling until Everett accuses him of racism, to which the bluff soul responds with a show of hurt feelings: “I’m Irish; racism is part of me culture.”
Boyle is a master of the blandly delivered tease designed to discomfit the unsuspecting. Back in his station, he’s given to answering the phone with a cheerful phrase: “Sergeant Gerry Boyle, cop shop.” Later, he asks Everett what it was like growing up in the projects. The American shoots back that he comes from a privileged Wisconsin suburb. Boyle wonders with seeming innocence, “And are there no projects there?” As Everett soon discovers, Boyle knows quite a bit about America, having not wasted his one trip to Disney World. Furthermore, as a good Irish snoop, he’s looked into Everett’s background and can cite his successful cases in intricate detail. Finally, Everett confesses with some asperity, “I don’t know whether you’re [ . . . ] smart or [ . . . ] dumb.” (The ellipses are for McDonagh’s unfortunate tic: He thinks we’ll miss his wit if he doesn’t point it out with the all-purpose participial modifiers that begin with either f or, in the case of black lads, mother. The plot’s not much to speak of, just the standard cops-and-coke shenanigans translated from NYC to Connemara. But it does boast a fine parody of Shane. As we’re reminded several times, this is west Ireland. Unfortunately, McDonagh didn’t dress Gleeson in fringed buckskin for his showdown with evil.