Civil rights sincerity

A lightweight look at racism in ‘The Help’

Cicely Tyson and Lila Rogers star in The Help.

Cicely Tyson and Lila Rogers star in The Help.

For an example of good intentions undermined by a woozy concept, look no further than The Help, a lightweight account of racism in 1962 Mississippi. Unlike more brutal films like Mississippi Burning or Ghosts of Mississippi, this one takes a softer and often comic approach as it portrays the plight of black maids who suffer under the casual racism and genteel abuse of wealthy young wives and matrons. Underpaid and overworked, these maids juggle the endless demands of childcare, cooking, cleaning, and serving a table while their haughty employers host bridge clubs or dash out for a tasty lunch.

Surveying this injustice is the improbably named Skeeter (Emma Stone, Crazy, Stupid, Love) a young woman who has just returned from four years at university and is seeing her hometown of Jackson with fresh and very critical  eyes. Skeeter aspires to be a journalist and maybe a novelist. Challenged by a New York editor (Mary Steenburgen), she decides to write from the point of view of these exploited black women who lovingly raise white babies, only to eventually watch them transform into the privileged class that seems destined to forever treat them with patronizing cruelty.

Skeeter is still close friends with a pack of young debutantes who are in their first throes of marriage and motherhood, and she is torn between comfortable old loyalties and her awakening liberal conscience. On the other side of Jackson’s racial divide are two maids in particular, Aibileen and Minny (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer), who eventually agree to speak candidly to Skeeter even though they are putting their jobs – and possibly even their lives – at risk. All of this gritty, heartfelt sincerity is regularly contrasted with the high-society shenanigans of Skeeter’s soon-to-be-erstwhile friends, who are much more interested in their own social pleasures than the happiness of their toddlers.

By focusing on Jackson’s domestic realm, Help threatens to become a mere chick flick, complete with dating dramas for Skeeter and cartoonish portrayals of the shallow, self-absorbed debs. Racism is regularly portrayed, but the tone sometimes shifts awkwardly between comedic slapstick and a few moments of real horror (such as the assassination of black activist Medgar Evers, which is covered on a TV newscast). The film’s point of view is superficially interesting, but pulls the old Hollywood trick of playing to a white perspective: it’s a civil rights drama watered down into a feel-good movie that congratulates the audience for being tolerant and progressive. M

 

The Help ★★3/4

Starring Emma Stone

PG 13 137 minutes

Continues  at the Odeon

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