Once upon a time, the only available job for black women in Southern states was working as a domestic, which was basically the same set of tasks that black women, a generation or two before (at best), performed during slavery.
Of course, by the turn of the 20th century, domestic work went towards keeping a roof over a struggling black family’s head, food on the table and added a few more dollars to the dreams of educating children that one day might not have to follow their mothers down the same hard roads. In science fiction, the question — do androids dream of electric sheep? — was asked, which led to Ridley Scott’s classic adaptation Blade Runner. But it would seem that no one cared about the deferred dreams and seething anguish of female domestics.
That is until Jackson, Miss., native Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 debut novel The Help cleared a path to the top of the best-seller list. Stockett’s book, a fictional account of an aspiring white female writer in the 1960s who interviews dozens of black domestic workers and pens a scathing portrait of the Southern mores and manners of the day, wrapped its readers in the warm comfort of liberal revisionist fantasy. It was finally OK for society to talk about this chapter of the Civil Rights era because we could see it through the eyes and experiences of a white protagonist who dared to care about the women who raised white children when their rich parents couldn’t be bothered to do so.
And so, thanks to Tate Taylor and DreamWorks, audiences can see this story even more clearly, one would hope, for the fairy tale that it is. The movie stands the narrative’s stock characters in front of postcard-perfect sets that recall the halcyon days of America before the reality of racial inequality and social justice intruded on our national consciousness, back when we could ignore mundane mistreatment because that was just the way of the world.
After four years at Ole Miss (that famed bastion of liberal education where we are expected to believe that she read Richard Wright’s Native Son), Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home with newfound vision, an ability to see how her childhood friends — in particular Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) — are maintaining a traditional value system that is deeming. Skeeter experiences discomfort watching as Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), a couple of domestics working for her cliquish circle, must endure talk about how white families need to build separate bathrooms for the help because it is unsanitary to have them using the facilities in the main house (separate but equal, as Hilly graciously comments at one point).
Before long, other petty and decidedly stereotypical injustices arise along with a precious few pesky historical footnotes (the killing of Medger Evers and the assassination of John F. Kennedy) to inspire a whole gaggle of domestics to let Skeeter collect their stories for a book, sure to be a best-seller (especially in Mississippi, right?), about their plight.
It’s difficult, as a black critic, especially one with intimate connections to the subject matter, to objectively review The Help. I wonder, for instance, if I should wait for a crusading white critic to swoop in, interview me and critique it for me (and possibly make me feel good, too)?
My condescending tone offers a counter-reflection to that of the film, which feels like every other feel-good revisionist take on the stories of the black experience told from a white perspective. Our stories, our history and our experiences don’t matter unless seen through the prism of a white person who can validate us, translate us for the masses and exert a little effort to save our sad hopeless souls.
Davis and Spencer, as Aibileen and Minny, do the requisite heavy lifting here, offering generous portions of quiet dignity and sass (when necessary). But, as in the case of any and every movie of this ilk, they end up with the same sad certainty with which they began, and neither heaven nor any of the good white folks who come to see the light can help them. Grade: D
Opens Aug. 10. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.