erik lundegaard

The Help

The Help (2011)


In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Katharine Hepburn does it to Virginia Christine. In “Mississippi Burning,” Gene Hackman does it to Brad Dourif. In “The Help,” it’s Allison Janney to Bryce Dallas Howard. They’re the somewhat-enlightened white people who berate the less-enlightened white people in movies about civil rights. They’re the white people who make the white people in the audience feel good about themselves.

Apparently, Jim Zwerg wasn’t enough.

The Janney moment occurs near the end of “The Help” and it’s a wholly unnecessary scene in which Charlotte Phelan (Janney), mother of the film’s protagonist, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), does a 180. For most of the movie, she’s had one goal: marry her daughter off. “Your eggs are dying,” she says early on. “Would it kill you to go on a date?” At the 11th hour, suddenly she’s OK with her daughter being the way she is and getting a job in New York and being a modern woman and all; and she apologizes for the way she’s been for most of the movie and most of her life: cowardly and overly concerned aboout societal matters. And to make it up to her daughter, she berates the movie’s villainess, Hilly Holbrook (Howard), a classic “mean girl” from one of the most connected families in Jackson, Mississippi, in language that will end any connection between their families. “Get your raggedy ass off my porch!” she says.

We’re supposed to cheer. Some people probably did. The bad person has been told off, and Allison Janney, whom we loved on “West Wing,” is someone we can love again. And we get that nice mother-daughter feeling going.

Years ago, “In Living Color” did a spot-on satire on Hollywood movies about civil rights. It was mostly lampooning “Cry Freedom,” I think, and a bit of “Mississippi Burning,” both of which focus on well-meaning whites and the problems they encounter (losing jobs and homes, etc.) as they stand up to racism. The black folks around them are being beaten and killed, sure, but it’s the white folks we worry about because it’s the white folks we focus on. Black folks are non-entities: walk-ons in their own story.

“The Help” is an improvement on this kind of historical myopia since it actually gives half-time to its title characters. Okay, 45 percent.

It’s 1962 and Skeeter Phelan is returning from college to her hometown of Jackson, where she lands a job ghosting a household-advice column for The Jackson Journal. (Aside: The actor who plays the editor, Leslie Jordan, steals the scene; he’s so authentic I assumed he was a local.) Catch: Skeeter doesn’t know from household advice; she was raised by a beloved maid, Constantine (Cisely Tyson), who has mysteriously disappeared, and initially she has nowhere to turn. But eventually she relies upon the people who do know housework: the black maids who bus in from the outskirts, and raise the kids and cook the meals and clean the floors of the white folks in town. From this initial contact, she gets an idea for a book. What is it like to raise a child who then becomes your boss? What is it like to leave your own child to care for another? Her editor in New York, Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who has suggestions of a “Sex and the Single Girl” lifestyle in her few moments on screen, is open to the idea, but doubts she’ll get any Southern black maid to trust her and talk. It’s the North reminding the South how the South lives.

Even so, one voice slowly emerges: Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who works for Hilly’s friend, Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), raising the little girl that Elizabeth can’t or won’t. You could call Aibileen the soul of Skeeter’s book just as she is the soul of the movie. Davis is able to portray a bone-deep sorrow few actors can. She has a dignity about her but it’s never the proud, Hollywood kind meant for oppressed minorities. In the roles I’ve seen her in—“Doubt,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and this—her characters are often skittish and distracted, as if they were thinking of other, sadder things. Most likely they are, since the movies are never wholly about them. The things she’s thinking about are the things Hollywood doesn’t portray: her life. But through Skeeter’s eyes, we do get a portion of that life.

If Skeeter is a progressive in racial matters, Skeeter’s childhood friend, Hilly, is the regressive. At a time when the civil rights movement is gaining strength, with marches in Albany and Birmingham and Washington D.C., she’s lobbying for a state law requiring separate bathrooms for black maids. “They carry different diseases than we do,” she says.

Hilly’s fears and prejudices lead to the ultimate in just desserts. When she fires her maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), for using the family toilet on a rainy day, then talks trash about her so she can’t get other work, Minny returns with a peace offering: a chocolate pie. But it’s not a peace offering because it’s not wholly chocolate. Hilly, who didn’t want to put her ass where Minny put hers, winds up eating ... no nice way to say this ... Minny’s shit. Literally. Minny planned on keeping this fact a secret, but Hilly is so awful, and Minny so volatile, that they have the following exchange:

Minny: Eat my shit.
Hilly (shocked): Excuse me?
Minny: I said eat... my... shit.
Hilly (still shocked): Have you lost your mind?
Minny: No, ma’am but you is about to. Cause you just did.

One wonders to what extent a black maid could say “Eat my shit” to a white woman in early 1960s Mississippi, let alone make it literally come true, without losing more than an income. The movie suggests that Hilly is so embarrassed by the incident that she’ll do anything to keep it under wraps. But wouldn’t she want revenge? And if she couldn’t tell the truth, what’s to stop her from makin’ up a little ol’ fib? She’d hardly be the first Southern belle to do so.

(Aside I: When did Bryce Dallas Howard become the villainess de rigueur of Hollywood? Not only Hilly here but the worst girlfriend in the world, Rachael, in “50/50.” Who knew the daughter of Ron Howard, Hollywood’s Mr. Nice Guy, had it in her?)

(Aside II: Does anyone else think of this movie as the battle of the Gwen Stacys? Howard and Stone, squaring off here, have both played Spider-Man’s girlfriend: Howard in a bit part in “Spider-Man 3,” and Stone as the main squeeze in “The Amazing Spider-Man” this summer.)

(Aside III: OK, nerd hat off.)

Post-pie, Minny finds work on the outskirts of town with an ostracized white girl with a heart of gold. Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is from Sugar Ditch, Miss., and is viewed as white trash by the girls in town, particularly Hilly, who once dated Celia’s husband, Johnny (Mike Vogel). Basically Celia is too dumb to be racist, to know all of the things you are supposed to do or say, or not do or say, with the help, and this, combined with a childlike enthusiasm, makes her adorable. She’s the other good white girl in town, and Minny teaches her how to cook, clean, sass other women. Apparently she knew none of these things. One wonders what she was she doing for the first 20 years of her life.

Meanwhile, Yule Mae Davis (Aunjanue Ellis), Minny’s replacement in the Holbrook household, asks Hilly for a $75 loan so she and her husband can send both of their kids to college. OK ... Where to start with this? She asks Hilly for a loan? To send two kids to college? At a time when it took the National Guard to send James Meredith to the University of Mississippi? And she’s shocked when Hilly says no?

Later, while vacuuming, she finds Hilly’s engagement ring behind a couch, pockets it, pawns it, and is eventually arrested. This is the awful, unjust incident that sends all the other black maids in Jackson into the arms of Skeeter and into the pages of “The Help”: the fact that someone who stole something got arrested for it.

But never you mind. The book becomes a huge success, the maids get royalties, Skeeter gets a job in New York, and Hilly, awful Hilly, gets hers. Everyone—from Charlotte to Aibileen—tells her off. It’s a happy ending. How could it be otherwise? It’s now Mississippi 1964. What could possibly go wrong?

—January 21, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard