Pauline Kael wrote that the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, produced in 1962 and set in Alabama during the 1930s, was in “part Hollywood self-congratulation for its enlightened racial attitudes.” And now we have The Help, based on a 2009 best-seller set in Jackson, Miss., circa 1962, “honoring white viewers for not being horrible racists.” Times may change, but the way people want to feel about themselves doesn’t; and there must be a name for the fallacy which makes people believe that, if they’d been around way back when, they’d certainly have been progressives. People often take one of their most important tools—hindsight—for granted, so it’s easy to mistake our forebears for buffoons, because they hadn’t the benefit of our education, and lived at a time when things that are now considered grotesque were accepted social norms. The movie is about the mistreatment of black maids at the hands of white housewives, and I do not mean to suggest that I am defending the reactionary attitudes of the latter. (One of the wives proposes, as her signature cause, a law enforcing that maids relieve themselves outside, rather than sully the indoor bathrooms. “Separate but equal,” the partisan parrots.) But my point is that nobody now—on the record, at least—approves of such positions, and so the people who once held them can be made to seem like random aberrations when they were, in fact, often swimming the mainstream. Just like the movie is.
Taken on its own—as a dog-days entertainment, co-produced by Chris Columbus, meant to cool off audience apprehensions like a paper fan—The Help is okay. The graceful Viola Davis and sprightly Octavia Spencer have been justly praised; eager Emma Stone, as the privileged, frizzy-haired Skeeter—an Ole Miss grad who wants to kickstart her journalistic career by chronicling the maids’ discontents anonymously, in a book—looks too much like someone who could be in line behind you at Starbucks in 2011; Allison Janney, as her ailing Southern-belle mother, is made up in one scene to look like Jackie-O gone Wacko Jacko; Jessica Chastain is good comic relief; Bryce Dallas Howard—playing Hilly, the outhouse proponent—is basically made into one of the Heathers; and so on. The color is chipper-chipper and the story (adapted by the director, Tate Taylor) resorts to such melodramatic devices as bawling babies and delayed climaxes. (The revelation about Skeeter’s mammy—Cicely Tyson—struck me as particularly unconvincing and overwrought.) There’s a poop joke out of Bridesmaids thrown into the mix, and it’s meant to be taken as a symbol of liberation. And, no, not liberation from bowels—sorry, couldn’t resist.
In sum, The Help is feel-good popular entertainment that plays by the Hollywood rules; and, given what it is, I cannot fault it for that. It isn’t, in itself, offensive: It’s neither opportunistic about race relations, like Precious, nor as illuminating on the subject as Night Catches Us or Talk to Me. Regarding its worth, most critics have already covered the bases, ranging from the dubious convention that black history must be seen through a white lens to the worthy point that the film, when it deals with the maids’ testimony, does honorably offer up a perspective that we rarely have the pleasure of hearing. But the movie reminded me of something Christopher Hitchens once said about how it’s now conventional thinking to see the Civil Rights movement as a noble moment in U.S. history, but how conventionalism “may mask for people how noble it really was.” That is to say, we all celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday—but do we really understand what exactly he was up against and why? The Help doesn’t, and probably doesn’t want to. If it did, we might have come out with more understanding of how the system put maids at its mercy or why it was important to their conventional-minded employers that it stay that way. (The “banality of evil” may be a cliché, but it’s one of very few that Hollywood rarely dares to touch.) Whether the effect is direct or not, simplified histories like this one pollute the well of memory, and allow neo-Birchites like Glenn Beck to pontificate with King’s words—even if a person like Beck probably would’ve been no more King’s ally than Hilly.