Not exactly Upstairs Downstairs, the American version, nor Desperate Housewives in the Deep South, but perhaps a little bit of both, The Help is that odd combination of a movie that’s much too long. Yet never quite long enough.
In other words, with its look back at the plight of African-American female house servants in the mid-20th century Jim Crow South – and their tumultuous when not tedious interaction with the smug young Southern belles for whom they toil – this rather claustrophobic, reality-based multiple memoir clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, is on the minimalist side when tracing the background of racially rooted lives. And compounded in its lack of historical clarity, by a kind of ‘she said, she said’ dramatized assorted oral histories.
And within its hermetic story, counting many resentful maids and one defecting Southern belle among them, of an only remotely connected, acutely traumatic and radically transformative social moment in time. But that would seem to let the men off the hook, while nearly locating the scourge of segregation among the demonized upper crust womenfolk entirely.
Adapted from the Kathryn Stockett bestseller and helmed by writer/director Tate Taylor, The Help stars Emma Stone as
Skeeter, a recent college grad reared among the Southern elite, and returning to her Jackson, Mississippi childhood home just as the Civil Rights Movement is about to ignite across the South. Hindered in her quest as a female shunning traditional domestication to be a serious writer, Skeeter observes the thwarted and oppressive lives of the black house maids in her high society midst, and decides to gather their stories for a book.
At first fearful of reprisals not to mention losing their jobs, the maids (played with grace and charm by among others, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) decline participation. But as their respective rage mounts against the demanding when not denigrating women they work for, the maids begin to relate their angry stories in secret, with Skeeter as eager stenographer.
The Help, with its fragmented and anecdotal flow, is an uneven mix of humor and terror in never quite encapsulating the turbulent period. And always with a lingering sense of Skeeter’s – or rather Stockett’s motives – being as much about her own personal payback against the privileged females she grew up with who labeled her the odd outsider – as it is about the plight of these maids.
And is it feasible to believe that not one of these rather passive and pleasant male gentry never abused the maids? Or for that matter, had anything to do with Jim Crow, which here seems more an atrocity concocted by all the upscale women around.
And if The Help appears to intimate that all scores have been nicely settled, resentments vented and callous offenders sufficiently humanized in that regard, let’s not forget the countless undocumented help who still toil under tragic circumstances today. And in many cases, harking back to the days of slavery in its modern day global trafficking version. Where is Skeeter when we could use her now.
Walt Disney Studios
2 1/2 stars