Halfway through Tate Taylor’s The Help, there’s a tossed-off joke that speaks volumes about the film’s attitude toward its historical setting. In the hotbed of racism (and sexism) that was early-‘60s Jackson, Mississippi, aspiring writer and racial “liberal” Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), embarks on a project of interviewing “the help,” the black maids working for the city’s middle- and upper-class white families, about their experiences and repressed feelings. As the would-be journalist discusses her project with a snooty, semi-reluctant New York editor, the latter demands that Skeeter pick up her pace and get her story done before “this whole civil rights thing blows over.”
Knowing that the following year would see the enactment of the Civil Rights Bill (the editor’s mention of the March on Washington places the scene’s action in 1963) and that the United States has since moved forward to a nominal racial equality, the viewer is thus placed in a superior position where he or she is free to—and indeed expected to—respond with a facile round of laughter at those benighted whites of a bygone era. The corollary of this condescension toward the past is a celebration of “how far we’ve come,” the implication being that, not only are things better now (no one would deny that they are), but, by inscribing the difference, to suggest that we’ve already achieved all our goals, in this case by moving on to the “post-racial” world allegedly signaled by Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 and made possible by anti-racist whites like Skeeter.
This sort of easy historical distancing is everywhere apparent in Taylor’s film, not just in celebrating the viewer’s superiority to the white characters’ racism, but in giving us cheap thrills by allowing Skeeter to tell off a sexist potential boyfriend who fails to take seriously her literary ambitions. (The “women can’t write” attitude is also refuted by the fact that the film is based on a bestselling novel by a female author, Kathryn Stockett.) High school creative-writing-class ironies of all kinds abound in The Help, the most blatant being that the local women’s organization, headed by the (too exaggeratedly) despicable Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), stages benefits for African children while its members treat their own African-American maids abominably.
Fortunately, not everything in the film is reducible to such cheap digs. A woman’s picture with an ensemble cast of both white and black characters, Taylor’s movie is least condensable to the formula of historical irony when focusing on the experiences of the latter group. Whether it’s Viola Davis’s Aibileen Clark relating the cruel death of her son, Octavia Spencer’s take-no-shit Minny Jackson telling white folks how it is, or the film’s understanding of the psychic stress created by the maids’ contradictory position as both stand-in mothers who develop a close maternal bond with their mistresses’ children and glorified slaves, The Help is almost always more successful relating black experience than either white brutality or magnanimity. And yet the help’s liminal standing, like much else in the film, is too often spelled out in thesis-declaiming dialogue rather than illustrated dramatically. When it is enacted, it’s often in obvious and sentimental ways, as in one scene where an “adorable” white child tells her maid that she’s her “real momma.”
Although the film treats the black characters’ experiences as every bit as significant as those of their white counterparts, and while it at least partially condemns the system of debased servitude that represented the only career option for most of the city’s black women, its attitude toward the whole racist setup reeks of a toned-down paternalism. (Perhaps, given the gender of the source novelist and most of the film’s characters, maternalism might be the better word.)
While most of the movie’s white mistresses treat their servants horribly, there’s at least one good egg in the basket, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), herself an outcast in the town—and her servant Minny is mighty pleased to be condescended to by this understanding cracker. But the real hero of the film is Skeeter, bringing the plight of these maids to a wider public and being rewarded with a job as a magazine editor in New York. Although she tells her subjects that the interviews she’s recording for her book are not about her, and while the maids seem to genuinely benefit from being able to tell their stories, it’s clear that for the film, in the end, it really is all about her. This paragon of virtue even plans to reject the New York offer and stay in Jackson in solidarity with the maids until two of them tell her they want her to go. Quickly and wholly absolved of any guilt about abandoning her “material” in a hellish Mississippi, Skeeter is free to move onward and upward with the full endorsement of both “the help” and The Help.