Prejudice movies or films that deal with some sort of inequality and that are aimed at families tend to be conventional and boring. Their outline screams tearjerker, but the meat of the film is usually left up to the performers, a pretty heavy task when you’re given a rather stale subject matter. The subject of race inequality wasn’t even that interesting when DW Griffiths spun it on its head in Birth of a Nation. Yes, it was the more abhorrent side of the coin, but its languid pace, its lack of judgment, and its overall dullness would pave the way for hundreds of films to come.
My fifth and sixth grade teacher would show the Disney TV movie Perfect Harmony every February for Black History Month. It’s an entertaining film about a white choir boy and a black kid who begin a friendly aquainrenship despite it being the 1950s in South Carolina. However entertaining it wa,s it was predictable.
Thus, those kinds of films never have made me raise an eyebrow in intrigue, with the exceptions of Glory and The Color Purple, two masterful films where, again, raw drama is taken from the actors, not the story. Which leads us to 2011’s The Help, based on the bestselling Kathryn Stockett novel that has swept book clubs across the nation. The Help is about a perky newbie journalist, played by Emma Stone in a very underplayed role, who interviews “the help” – the black servants that populated the relatively wealthy families of the south – for an expose and book, just as the Civil Rights movement was beginning.
You have your usual villainess, played with fervor by Bryce Dallas Howard; your put upon heroine, played by Viola Davis (whom I preferred in her Oscar nominated turn in Doubt); your ditzy but kind archetypal relationship with the mouthy black woman, played by Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer; and nothing much else. Therein lies the problem of The Help: it’s a completely conventional, predicatble story.
Conventionality is not always a bad thing, ut it is rarely a good thing, with the exception of certain genre films. When dealing with such a “sensitive” subject such as race abnd equality, often the story falls into the dangers of becoming deathly predctable, annoyiong, and sometimes even stereotypical. History is at the mercy of the writers and directors, and thus they will do whatever is most dramatic. That’s what film is for, right? Drama? The Help is conventional in almost every aspect. White girl, journalist Skeeter takes interest in black maids for the greater good. White socialite, Celia, takes interest in black maid because she’s nice. Which of these two relationship dynamics, however conventional they may be, works the best and most realistically? It is the latter, played with fervor and brilliant repartee and chemistry by Jessica Chastain (oh Mother Earth in Terrence Malick’s highfalutin Tree of Life) and Octavia Spencer (who’s had bit roles). The story gives way to other stereotypes as well, making Bryce Dallas Howard less uhman and more obnoxious and malevolent than one would like to see. That’s not too terribly surprising, as it is, as I continue to say, very conventional of the story. She is the main villain. Then we have the thing that rolls everything into motion, the bathrooms. Howard instigaes separate bathrooms for “the help”. How racist! Skeeter slowly aquires her interviews and the book gets published and it creates an outrage…
Its accuracy to the original story is pretty much irrelevant, as the main point of drama is perhaps based on the racial stature of the characters. If it bore only a hint of resemblance, the film would still be fine to outsiders. It’s pure conventionality is not only rooted in the subgenre itself, but also in the story and source, which is itself a member of that subgenere, only in terms of literature.
Despite being perhaps excruciatingly predicatble and boring, The Help is not a bad movie. On the contrary, it’s not only a competent movie, an entertaning one, but it is riveting. The performances are what’s really on trial, and there are more than afew moments where the audience’s eyes may get a bit misty. Jessica Chastain is flawless as Celie Foote, the ditsy, shunned wannabe socialite in Jackson, Missippi. Her relationship with Minny, the maid, is completely natural, something that could have been predcictable and devoid of heart or warmth. Chastain’s naturalness when inhibiting the role really wins you over. Viola Davis is excellent as the protagonist amongst the maids, someone whose son has died. Her emotion moves the audience, the sways in clamness and temperment as nuanced as the ocean waves. Her subtely literally washes over the audience and is never forceful and rarely treads into the area of the “cliché black woman under pressure” performance. This will sure getthe attention of Oscar voters.
While the performances drive the film, there is a fair bit of drama that will bring you to tears. Again, this is expertly handled by the actors,however, the details within the story add the extra emotional punch to the gut. This raw emotion with such superb acting is a perfect equatoin for this kind of movie.
Although it may not be perfect, and although it is dangerously conventional, it may be this year’s The King Speech. Not in the way that’ll snag a surprise Best Picture win, but that it’ll warm the Academy’s hearts. More like Mississippi Cleaning.