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Mean Girls vs. the Maids

Civil rights through a soft focus lens in The Help.

More than just the Hollywood It Girl of the moment, Emma Stone is a real actress, and in The Help, she gets an ostentatious, Oscar-baiting Big Scene in which to prove it. Stone is, to borrow a phrase from Bret Easton Ellis's Twitter account, thoroughly post-empire — she doesn't need this kind of relic of old-school Hollywood to show off her chops. But this is the kind of thing The Help is best at: forcing easy, organic charm to glimmer through a few layers of ancient dust.

A fast-talking, eye-rolling snarler, Stone wears a truly terrible perm to play the allegedly dowdy Skeeter, a smart but naive recent college graduate who returns to her family's Mississippi plantation in the summer of 1962. She is shocked to discover that, in her absence, not only have her school friends become the casually, cruelly racist white establishment, but also her own beloved childhood maid (Cicely Tyson) has disappeared. Skeeter decides to write about her hometown from the perspective of the black women who work in every white household. Her ins to that world are Aibileen (Viola Davis), a dutiful maid who has a tendency to develop unusually intimate relationships with the white children she's paid to take care of ("You're my real mama, Abi!" a cherubic toddler cringe-worthily exclaims, the second her bio-mom is out of earshot), and Minny (Octavia Spencer), whose inability to become wallpaper/doormat while at work has cost her a few jobs, most recently and spectacularly in the home of the town's coolly despicable queen bee, Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard).

The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel, is so sincerely invested in the tenacity and nobility of Aibileen and Minny that to accuse writer/director Tate Taylor of pushing the dreaded Magical Negro button would be a low blow. These women are not merely the wisdom-spouting ciphers that so often exist as only devices to teach white movie characters lessons. They are that — they do actually say things like, "Fried chicken just tend to make you feel better 'bout life," while pretty blond women look on, beaming — but they're not just that; they're also victims of fairly realistic character flaws, almost as much as they're victims of circumstance.

Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, left) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) tell their stories.
Dale Robinette
Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, left) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) tell their stories.

Details

The Help

Rated PG-13.

Skeeter, of course, has her own, somewhat less urgent civil rights battle, signified by the fact that she's the only white woman in town with a job, while her commitment to her career guarantees her inability to get and keep a boyfriend (a "struggle" still being fought in the average romantic comedy set today). She's led to believe things are different in glam Manhattan, but even her long-distance New York City mentor, a short-skirted book editrix played by Mary Steenburgen, is shown business lunching with multiple men — and, pointedly, going to bed alone.

Maybe it's because her project is partially self-interested — she's not writing about these women to help only their careers — that Skeeter, and the film, neglect to sufficiently answer what is at one point posited as the book-within-the-movie's key question: Why do little white girls who are raised lovingly by black maids turn into raging racist assholes once they've grown to run their own households?

The psychology of this query is too complicated for a film so hell-bent on jerking easy tears and capturing a wide audience. Instead, we get a fairly typical Hollywood flattening of history, with powerful villains and disenfranchised heroes. In one corner, there are contemptibly cowardly conformists like Hilly's gang of girls and their seemingly interchangeable husbands. On the other side are outsiders of many stripes — the black servant class; Skeeter, the unglam brainiac; and assorted white matron figures who seem to have the freedom to buck the norm only because they've outlived their usefulness as women — whose recognition and support of one another lift all of their boats simultaneously.

As a filmmaker, Taylor seems to be less interested in the stories of these working women than in the mechanics of storytelling — the ways in which reportage and gossip serve, er, separate but equal functions in shaping narratives. The Help is plainly a film about how talking becomes writing, which becomes activism, which turns into history. The night Medgar Evers is killed, Aibileen tries to comfort a paranoid Minny: "We ain't doin' civil rights, we just telling stories like they really happened" — a downplaying that rightfully makes her friend laugh. The characters are well aware of the portent of their story swapping, as is the film. The Help is able to transcend its own puffed-up self-importance in only those few moments when two people on the margins — by choice or by birth — see their own struggles reflected in the other, their individual hardships fading into a shared compulsion to fight back.

 
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AshelyWine502016
AshelyWine502016

I just p a i d $21 for an i P a d 2-64GB and my boyfriend loves his Panasonîc Lumîx GF 1 Camera that we got for $38 there arriving tomorrow by UPS.I will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $657 which only cost me $62 to buy.Here is the website we use to get it all from BídsFírst.Com

craigley
craigley

If you saw Emma Stone on Saturday Night Live this season you saw the REAL Emma Stone.

Sorry, she's terrible.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Not these stories again. Can't a movie be made where the enfranchisement of blacks isn't dependent on the kindness on a white person?

tanaka
tanaka

I agree completely. I am tired of these kinds of stories about blacks. There are so many other stories about black culture, black contributions, and black struggles to be told that would paint a better and more clear picture of the black experience. And, given that initially, the only roles blacks could get in films involved them portraying maids, servants, or slaves, you'd think that by now, Hollywood would pick a new subject. I think this movie is a set back, and while I expect it to do well in the box office, I agree with the later comment posted below that its success will be due a largely the non-black audience. Blacks have had enough of this.

H_e_x
H_e_x

It seems that if it isn't some hetero normative, stereotypical drivel put out by Tyler Perry, a movie about blacks won't be made. God only knows there are enough black writers who have written books that could be made into movies, but Hollywood isn't interested in them. The people in charge know their audience is going to be white, so they feel they have to elevate whites into a position of power and compassion, as if this makes up for the terrible situation they put blacks in.

JakeJackson
JakeJackson

I paid $23.88 for an i Pad 2 32-GB and my girlfriend loves her Panasonic

Lumiix GF 1 Camera that we got for $ 38.41 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I

will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when

I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $ 635 which only cost me $ 61.74

to buy. Here is the website we use to get it al from, http://EgoWin.com

SayItIDareU
SayItIDareU

I loved both the book and movie. I'll pay to see it again. I'll share the book with my friends. And I DON'T feel that black people will be the majority audience for this movie. In fact, in my theatre, there were more white and latina present than black. I was one of 9. If you want to tell the story differently, tell it YOURSELF.

MadMac
MadMac

"The Help is plainly a film about how talking becomes writing, which becomes activism, which turns into history."

Or, another inspiring story of a white kid making a buck off black people's back.

 

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