Directed by Tate Taylor
There seems to be an inverse relationship between the giddiness of any movie trailer’s voiceover and the humor extant in the actual movie. Case in point: The Help, which, in addition to not eliciting any laughter, swerves into jolly, paternalistic racism. This is sort of a given, considering its premise: a plucky, college-educated Southern white lady gets a book deal by recording the stories of black maids in the early 1960s, specifically their feelings around raising white babies. (Spoiler alert: they love the babies.)
Emma Stone's benevolent Miss Skeeter (who has some serious mommy issues, which serve as motivation for this project) assures the women that this is a public service. Yet despite the emphasis on the interviewees' very credible fears of being lynched for airing their white employers’ dirty laundry, the stories told here are hardly shattering. Awareness about the deplorable conditions under which black southerners live won't be achieved, apparently, by marching in the streets, boycotts, or legal action, but instead with a book of gossip that tears down other women. The snippets of stories shown are brief, told by a parlor of anonymous, interchangeable black women, in rapid succession. Of course, these ladies tell a few stories of "good whites," but even the most degrading vignettes shy away from the level of actual racism at the time, which can be found on the pages of Ellison, Wright, or a dozen other black writers whose books haven't been adapted for the Hollywood screen. Sexual abuse by employers? Who wants to hear about that?! Tell us about the time you made a chocolate pie with shit in it and watched your bitchy boss eat it. (Segregated bathrooms figure prominently into this story, so it's not a total non-sequitur; just kind of childish and ineffective resistance.)
Director Tate Taylor spends most of the movie following Skeeter and her white friends' standard-issue dysfunctional, upper-middle class lives, relegating the maids' personal lives to a b-story. (Yes, the interiors and clothes are just fabulous! It's like Almadovár directed an episode of Mad Men while on Xanax.) To Michelle Bachmann's chagrin (and likely contrary her warped understanding of history),complete black families are noticeably absent, save for Minny, who fulfills the obligatory role of "the fat, sassy one" and gets routinely beaten by her off-screen husband. She finally finds the strength to leave him when her white employer cooks her an exceptional meal.
With a plodding pace and a nonexistent emotional core, this dull attempt to deal with a past wound instead does a disservice to it. There is racism in this film, so afraid to stray from stereotypes on both sides. This time and topic deserve complexity, and instead we get two factions of women—ones who work all day and then go home to care for their families and do housework, and ones who do charity work and must behave as passive trophies—bickering. The one thing this movie does have is a big, sassy black woman who shouts something sassy and then chomps a piece of fried chicken, which—oh, that's been done before? Well never mind, then.
Opens August 10