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The Help

I was afraid that “The Help” was going to be this year’s “The Blind Side;”  an overly earnest film coming out of the American South about white people who save black people.   But actually, it’s a lot more fun than that, and will make you cry, too.  This may not be a great movie, but it’s one worth watching.

Emma Stone plays an almost impossibly forward-thinking young journalist who wants to do more than write the weekly “how to clean it” column for her local newspaper.  So she starts interviewing, in secret, the black maids who work in white households.  She starts with Viola Davis, who is terrified that, if anyone finds out she is talking to Stone, she will lose her job and never be able to get another one.  Soon, Octavia Spencer joins the interviews, and boy, this woman can talk.  When Medgar Evers is assassinated in Jackson, maids come out of the woodwork to share their stories as an act of solidarity and activism.  The book gets published, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of the white women employers, and the world knows the truth about oppression and racism in the ’60s American South.

The movie’s biggest problem is, oddly, also what makes it terribly enjoyable to watch.   To put it shortly, the performances are segregated.  Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are working in drama.  They bring to their characters a great deal of gravity and pathos; they are so invested in the roles that they almost force the audience to care about these invisible women and the life and death situations they face nearly every day as they navigate the difficult and complicated world of race relations in an oppressive age.  Davis and Spencer both deliver really impressive and memorable performances in their roles, and I’m glad that both were nominated and Spencer won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

On the other side of the color line, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, and most of the other white women are playing in a comedy.   There is no effort to make these women real; they are the villains, and they might as well be cartoon characters.  Howard leads the way here; her character is so thoroughly heartless, so unrepentedly evil, so utterly vindictive and scheming and brutally mean (and she enjoys it!)  that there’s just no way a person like this could actually exist.  (Seriously, she might be worse than Hitler.)  She attains supervillain status; she might just have secret superpowers.  Bryce Dallas Howard so completely sinks her teeth into creating the next great movie villain, Cruella De Ville on steroids, Voldemort in lipstick, that I found myself, more than once, cackling with glee and the absurdity of her performance.  She is the best movie villain to come along since the Joker in “Dark Knight.”  I love movies with great villains, and Howard’s performance, as ridiculous as it is, elevates “The Help” from “OK movie about a social issue” to “pretty good movie with a great bad guy.”

I have seen movies that wrestle more effectively with the issue of racism in the South; as serious social drama, “The Help” is pretty heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative; it takes on an issue about which there really aren’t two sides any more, and so goes for the slam dunk on an empty court.  Congratulations for that, I suppose.   But for sheer entertainment value, I’d recommend “The Help” heartily.  It swings oddly from time to time, and you’ll be enraged, you’ll certainly cry, but you’ll also laugh in wonder at just what this film’s reaching for.  It would be hard to find another film that reaches so hard to be both ridiculous and touching, silly and serious, sad and funny at the same time.   I’m not sure the director Tate Taylor (who got the rights to the bestselling book because he’s a childhood friend of the author) intended all this while filming, but bless him for letting it all happen anyway.  Sometimes lack of vision is a gift.

 

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