Tuesday, August 16, 2011
To call The Help caricature insults Aunt Jemima, but it’s difficult to define precisely how this grotesque sideshow operates without associating it with camp, melodrama, slapstick, Southern Gothic, and other broadly emotional modes even though this Lifetime docudrama full of characters laughing hysterically at unfunny jokes is as aimless and formless as its facile, well-meaning politics. Director Tate Taylor’s progressive purpose is so Important that the running time reaches the glorious extent of two hours and seventeen minutes just so we don’t miss anything in this delicately assembled slideshow of lingering banal compositions and tear-streaked frames sublimating decades of white guilt. If anything’s on the cutting room floor, it’s the last-minute excision of a close-up of Emma Stone’s white hand clasped in the black palm of Viola Davis, a Symbol of how together they triumphed over racism forever!
Of course the film doesn’t argue that explicitly, and Taylor’s direction is so generic there’s only one coherent purpose anyway. Taylor’s mission from God is certainly not to make cinema or even to tell a story well but to make us laugh and cry about the plight of black women in the ‘60s, not so it spurs us to any Stanley Kramer-style social action, because the film is so alien that it wouldn’t matter if it did offer advice beyond loving your enemies, and it doesn’t even dramatize that beautiful ideal, but so we experience catharsis, and having cried in a dark room of strangers and chatted with people of all races on the way out, we can look in the mirror and feel proud about how far we’ve come as the cast and crew, black and white alike, take the stage and grip that gold and thank Hattie McDaniel in heaven above for enduring so much for them, and everyone cheers, and who's James Byrd again?
Saying Viola Davis was magnificent in her performance is something like saying she did a spectacular job riding that nuke into Moscow, which I guess she did, but how can you tell with such a shallow role? Jessica Chastain was the only one capable of summoning some inner richness in spite of her stereotype, and it helps that she knows exactly what movie she’s in, a broad melodrama that wants to be Mad Men but winds up The Blind Side. You can tell by how Taylor bowdlerizes Matthew Weiner right down to his soundtrack choices, and for all the flak Mad Men catches for supposedly sidelining race, when black maid Carla sits down next to white snob Betty just as JFK is assassinated, it’s an image years in the making tossed away by Taylor like an adolescent writing a fan fiction homage to his favorite show. Segregation is not some historical anomaly confined to an alien country with enough fried chicken to feed Precious for a month. In Margaret Brown's 2008 documentary The Order of Myths about the racially segregated Mardi Gras parades in Mobile, Alabama, one black girl says to another, “You know, the whites, they probably gonna be better than us.” That’s the truth of institutional prejudice, the misshapen mole on the American experiment. The Help is just a big, fat zit.