There is a lot, a lot, a lot going on in The Help. We know this because this movie is two and a half hours long, though it doesn’t feel like it when you watch it on TV. Or, if it does, you blame the network for breaking it up into such a long sit, the way Freeform can make any Harry Potter film a four-hour experience. There is a lot going on in The Help, but probably too much. For sure, thinking back to the film before I rewatched it, Viola Davis’ performance was the only part I had any real memory of, and even that was somewhat fuzzy. Especially after the 2016 Oscar season saw such a great year for Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone, not to mention Bryce Dallas Howard’s great work on Black Mirror and whatever groove Jessica Chastain’s been in for some time, seemingly on the edge of another nomination with A Most Violent Year (better than the nominated slate, but she and Arquette deserve a rewatch) and Miss Sloane (nice haircut, but feh) yet always on the outside looking in (I had also recently seen Zero Dark Thirty and was surprisingly unimpressed with her performance, and was eager to get her again), it felt like I owed it another look-through. What I saw was Viola Davis giving a truly wonderful central performance, surrounded by a lot of performers ably serving the piece without complicating it, deepening it, or keeping up with Davis. No one is really abetted here by writer/director Tate Taylor, whose direction doesn’t do anything to help or guide his actresses, and whose screenplay betrays a lot of shaky politics by giving Emma Stone’s Skeeter so much focus. The Help really tries to do a lot of things politically, but encourages too much broad playing from its interpreters in a film that lives and dies by how well they can play their parts. But what we end up having is a breezy film, pretty entertainingly played, with one heroic performance a lot of political brouhaha to sort through. So reader, let’s get sorting!
Ostensibly, there are two women leading The Help’s crusade, though one of them seems ripe to get shoved to the sidelines. I am, of course, talking about the bizarrely forefronted Skeeter Phelan, the ambitious and racially aware white woman whose attempts to write a book about the black maids in her home town, is the narrative backbone of The Help. Like Jack in Room, or so many other stories where a fascinating central character is observed by a less compelling audience surrogate, The Help does not have the good sense to actually hand over the film to the characters its story is actually about, and it suffers for it. Nevermind that Stone is perhaps the film’s least compelling performer (Bryce Dallas Howard isn’t good, but she’s not boring either), but her career aspirations and romantic journey are so tangential to the conversation every other facet of the film is having that its inclusion is genuinely unnecessary. I’m all for long films if the story requires it, but a lot of her story feels like padding on a film that doesn’t need it. I’d have admired a more self-effacing performance, but Stone seems to flail with giving her castmates or us any kind of characterization to interact with. I’d have loved to see her take on Hilly Holbrook, but instead we just have an idea about Skeeter Phelan, and that’s a shame for everyone involved.
Our real hero, of course, is Aibileen Clark, though certainly more characters could be considered equal drivers in the story. Minny Jackson, Celia Foote, and Hilly Holbrook have almost equal narrative import as Aibileen, and the story certainly shifts between letting each of them drive it for long stretches of time. The inclusion of Skeeter’s separate arc keeps these strands from mingling entirely gracefully, and disrupts the film’s most interesting ideas about the relationship between the black maids who raise the white babies that will grow up and continue mistreating them as adults. You can feel how much this version wants to have a structure like Howards End, which so artfully allows all of its characters to work as engines that drive the story’s narrative and its political ideas, but Tate Taylor’s comedic bent in interpreting The Help undermines this idea from the get go. The cast, too, is almost uniformly limited by Taylor’s direction, asking too little of a fine ensemble that seem completely ready to do more. Not one actor is asked to complicate or deepen their characters the way that the actors of Howards End do, breathing specific life into each of its characters and giving each one plenty of ideas and actions for the audience to respond to, even as the political ideas that power the whole project are present at all times. Here, the limited scope of what Taylor is doing simplifies everything The Help is earnestly trying to be. Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t just make Hilly Holbrook a flatly antagonistic presence, flaunting her nastiness, but works hard to make us aware that she as much as anyone is disgusted by Hilly by way of turning the woman into a joke as much as she does a threat. Jessica Chastain, easily turning in the best performance among the cast’s white women, makes Celia a welcome, giddy presence, committing deeply to the character’s goodness and her sadness in appropriate moments, but doesn’t seem in any way like a woman who could ever be friends with Hilly and her crew. And as lovely as Octavia Spencer’s Academy Award win is, it’s still a pretty broad performance that seems ripe for a deeper read, and more decision-making on Spencer’s part. I wish it resembled her wonderfully underplayed Hidden Figures performance, especially since her face is so remarkably open and expressive that it often feels like she’s mugging for effect in scenes that just don’t call for it. No one embarrasses themselves or the picture, and it hums along fine, but it’s almost too easy to see the deeper, more complicated picture, one with a more outwardly cozy Hilly, a pricklier Celia, a more reserved Minny, that’s hiding in this film.
What is it about Tate Taylor that he can so capably stymy all but the most committed actors? Davis somehow finds room to thrive in The Help and Emily Blunt manages to turn in a full characterization in The Girl on the Train, but they are palpable exceptions to what both films wind up turning out. The Girl on the Train’s cast seem like they all showed up to set between other projects and haven’t bothered trying in the slightest, outside the remarkably committed Blunt. No one in The Help, thankfully, is dull, but it’s astounding how Taylor managed to get the two sleepiest performances I’ve ever seen Allison Janney give. She makes more of an impact in the two minutes she appears in Margaret, so much more alive on the brink of death than Janney’s cancer-ridden mother ever appears to be. Cicely Tyson has almost nothing to do as Skeeter’s long-gone maid, never mind the walk-on cameo of Tony winner LaChanze as her daughter, though I appreciate the seeming revitalization it gave to public interest in Tyson’s career. At least Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen seem like they’re having a ball, but Spacek especially doesn’t look like she’s trying.
If Taylor doesn’t seem to have coached his actresses in any meaningful way (I’m saying nothing about Chris Lowell’s unworthy suitor), his own staging of the film’s events seem completely uninspired, banking entirely on the strength of actresses has hasn’t tried in any way to coax out more intricate, surprising performances than the ones they end up giving. The comedic tone leaves the film alarmingly without any complication, and the uncomfortably entangled relationships between the white and black women of Jackson, Mississippi are wholly underserved as all the white women fall so neatly under the “unbearably cruel racist” or “fundamentally good liberal” categories. In art like this there’s no way for the maids not to be wholly sympathetic figures, and they should be, but we’re treated to far less time with the maids as a whole to the white society ladies. There’s not one maid that isn’t a cuddly presence to the audience, not one who could confuse a stupid liberal into abandoning racial equality through being too thorny or unapproachable or mean, as is occasionally a thing stupid liberals do nowadays with progressive causes. The broadness of Minny Jackson seems especially symptomatic of making her and Aibileen likable above all else, and I wish that Spencer had made the character a truly bitter woman who sees no way to change her situation except through this white redhead, instead of finding a comedic register for her sourness and her anger. Taylor’s own, scripted insistence on giving so much for Skeeter to do belies his own fundamental misunderstanding of what The Help is about, of what it could be, and the whole piece suffers for it.
For all that Taylor’s decision-making seems to impede most of what The Help is trying to be, there is still enough fertile soil for Viola Davis to craft a wizardly performance of Aibileen Clark. Working within the film’s tone, she makes Aibileen a figure of audience sympathy without into the bathos the role more than accommodates in the slightest. In fact, Davis is delightfully indulgent in the moments of joy in Aibileen’s life without editorializing how sporadic these moments of happiness are, highlighting their rarity by giving in completely to them when they appear. Gossiping with Minny at parties in the kitchens; earnestly caring for Mae Mobley and fondly recalling the other white babies she has taken care of; so touched and grateful and delighted by the recognition she gets from her fellow parishioners once the book is finally published. Her whole first scene is a brilliant introduction to the character, responding to a recollection with a full-mouthed and toothy grin, so visibly responsive and impressed with Skeeter asking what it’s like to raise white babies but not her own child in such a way that you know she’s never been asked anything that personal (at least by a white woman) in her whole life, the way her face tightens into a mask as she looks out the window after glancing at the portrait of the son she knows is long dead without boldfacing it to us. I knocked the character of Minny and Spencer’s interpretation of her as being an easy mark for audience sympathy, and there’s certainly plenty of potential for that kind of manufactured likability that short-shrifts character depth or complexity in Aibi. But at no point does Davis milk Aibileen’s sadness for easy sympathy, asking for empathy instead of pity as she tells the story of how her son died and what telling her stories will mean to her, and to his memory. She cannot seem to stop her tears but never stops to cry. Even in the face of the dehumanizing bathroom laws from Hilly, or the absolute terror she feels running home at night after Medgar Evers is assassinated, she telegraphs the indignities Aibileen faces every day and the ones that are new, shameful lows for her to experience. There’s a bone-deep tiredness to her, but her body is just as active in her joys (laughing at Elizabeth Leefoot’s dress with Minny during the ball), her triumphs (jumping for joy at receiving the check from the book), her shame (that run home), her care (every scene she has with Mae Mobley, earnestly doting on her but worried about who this girl will become), her rage (that gut-wrenching last scene).
I tried ending the introductory paragraph with the phrase “Viola Davis does not a movie make” but in this case, at least, that’s debatable. Her performance is the only reservoir of depth and emotion anywhere in The Help, the most vivid part of the film I could remember before this rewatch and surely what I will remember best about it after (I did in fact spend my entire 4:00-10:30 dishwashing shift on Tuesday reminiscing on her performance, and planning the outline of this piece). I’ve already spent a lot of time thinking about revisiting her performances in Solaris, Far From Heaven, Doubt, Blackhat, Prisoners, and Fences – glorious Fences – and wondering what else I’ll get out of seeing these for second or third times. The Help was so unexpectedly rich to see again specifically on her account, and it’s perfectly fair to remember this film only on terms of her heroics. “You is kind, you is smart, you is important” already seems like it’s permeated the culture so perfectly, perhaps more so than the gifs of Jessica Chastain practically hurtling her coke bottle in joy or the look Octavia Spencer gives once she reveals the secret ingredient in her pie (lord, why are all the biggest insults hurtled at Hilly so scatological?). The Help is a fine film, perfectly acceptable on its own turns even as it belies a lot of wasted opportunity in its script, its cast, and its direction. But we have one unimpeachable feat of acting, given by one of the most powerful and imaginative actresses working today. I am happy to hear a deeper read on this film from someone who loves it, and morbidly interested in hearing the problems someone would have with Viola Davis’s leading performance.
As it currently sits, I am perfectly fine with the mediocrity of The Help, though I wish so much that it had more in it than I got. I also wonder the degree I’m underestimating how well it gets the intraracial environments instead of the interracial environments. Is it that difficult, though, to grasp the social hierarchies of rich, politically stunted white women? Or the inherent terror, without editorializing, that black women felt at that time? Jim Crow is mentioned about once, though he hangs over the proceedings. I still think it’s a massive liability than “the help” are not given the communal screen time wasted by a lot of what Skeeter’s up to, and that easy reversal could’ve done wonders for the film to see how these women react to the opportunity to have their stories published instead of hearing it relayed to us through Aibileen and Minny. And I really wonder what having any real male presence in this affair, to see how white and black men feel about the codependent relationship between the black and white women of The South, would’ve transformed the blueprint of the whole project. Okay, so maybe I’m not perfectly fine with it, but the degree to which Viola Davis is so immensely rewarding in this film makes me forgiving of anything that made room for her genius performance. There is a lot, a lot going on in The Help, and a lot of ways all of that could’ve been made better. Especially with a project that is so politically ambitious, it is disheartening that the film seemingly clubs itself so easily. Yes, there is room in there for Viola Davis to Do That, but it’s independent of her director, and as undeniably sterling as she is in this film, she cannot be used as an excuse to cop for the film’s flaws. Aibileen Clark is a tremendous creation, and one that could surely exist in a better version of The Help. I hope we get a better version of this kind of film soon, but Viola and Aibileen give us the story and the protagonist we deserve, and I am happy to applaud her for it as often as I can.