I watched “The Help” but haven’t read it yet

I came into the movie with a review already written in my head. But also with a counter review that I was hoping would come in handy, too. My expectation was that this was going to be a racist movie disguised as moral and egalitarian in which a white woman comes to save the black woman’s day and that the civil rights movement owes it all to white women like the author of “The Help;” that what makes us (“the audience”) feel so good about a movie about hateful things is not only do white women (like “us”) exist who can help poor black women, but racism happened a long time ago in a land far away (always “The South,” or “Mississippi”) and we know better now: black people are . . . helpful?

What I was hoping the movie would also do, in my counter review to what this standard liberal academic critique, would be to offer in melodramatic, sentimental form some vision of female solidarity or feminine desire or a radically tear-dripping image of lady power.

Both kind of happened.

The movie was already aware of critiques like my own knee-jerk one that expected the movie to laud the white women’s endowment of black ability (as I also imagine “The Blind Side” is essentially about, but I never saw it). It tried to remedy the problem without ever really fixing it. Viola Davis’s character, Aibileen, provides the voice over for the movie and her voice ends the movie repeating (insistently) that she, unexpectedly, has become a “writer,” when all along she thought it’d be her son. The “actual” writer of the story, Skeeter (Emma Stone), declares half way through the movie that the story is “not about me,” but about the lives of the black women who have raised the children and cleaned the homes of white families throughout the area. So the movie does recognize the problem of telling black stories through white eyes and seems to want to find a way around it. But it never quite manages it.

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Skeeter at the typewriter

For David Denby, in The New Yorker, the movie/book’s trans-racial narration is simply a matter of poetic license: “I wouldn’t quarrel (as some people have) with a white woman’s choice to write in the voices of black women or to say what black women of fifty years ago felt. A writer should be able to write in any voice she likes, and invented feelings may have a power and an authenticity that transcend literal accuracy. The only issue is whether the results are any good.” (Read more). Yet, the movie isn’t simply “writing in the voice of” black women. If it were, then we would have had a far more interesting movie that could offer us black women characters that show us something more than we already (think we) know. More, in other words, than stereotypes.

Although the movie makes an effort to give Viola Davis (who is, frankly, awesome) a touching, believable narrative perspective, it loses its courage and refuses to give the whole story over to her. Instead, we have to sit through the banalities that make up Skeeter’s more fully developed life: her mother that didn’t love her well enough, her maid that loved her too well, the boyfriend that miraculously appeared to tell her she’s pretty and smart, the story of racial tension that she uncovered that would land her a job in New York City. All these little details work to make up a more complete picture of a person that the movie — as it insists — isn’t about.

But, on the other hand, the movie is indeed about women helping (and hurting) other women in powerful — and sometimes cliché — ways. Mostly set in domestic worlds — where we can catch glimpses of various 1960s Southern interiors: the modern ranch home, the old Plantation, the poor shack house — the film is almost entirely absent of men. Those who do appear are often quickly taking their leave, scuttling away nervously from getting embroiled in women’s issues. Skeeter’s boyfriend makes the longest appearance in the film — but he’s an empty vessel there to reassure us that Skeeter is NOT gay (nor will she hook up with the handsome and smart – he wears glasses – black waiter who serves as the intermediary between the white and black worlds). But, in a film that raises the question about how it happens that white women can turn against the black women that raised them, it touches on without fully exploring the confusing dynamic that is the mother/daughter relationship. The black woman, it would seem, stands in as the ideal mother, keeping alive a fantasy of maternal love. The biological mothers falter by comparison. Once the child grows up, has kids of her own, and faces the impossibility of the ideal — perhaps this is when resentment/racism emerges? After all, Skeeter can still (“constantly”) hold on to her fantasy of Constantine since she doesn’t have kids of her own yet.

The other character who is not yet a mother is played (again, awesomely) by Jessica Chastain. The story of her three miscarriages is a touching one. And her relationship with Minnie is sweet. It could have been even sweeter, though, if they had more fully suggested the queer tension in their dynamic. When Chastain has Minnie sit down so she can have a look at a wound over Minnie’s eye caused by her abusive husband, I clapped inside thinking we were about to see a re-enactment of the Whoopie/Demi scene from Ghost. But then they cut the scene. It was over. No cross-racial lesbian love for us.

One last thing, and then I’m done. There is a little montage sequence when the book, The Help, just comes out and we see all the women reading the book: in the grocery store, at the salon, in their beds, on the sofa. While they read, they are identifying themselves or their neighbors as potential subjects of the black women’s story. Now here’s my question: in this montage — do these women read the book in our place — identifying themselves as racist so that we don’t have to? Or is their reading, in mirroring our watching, the only suggestion the movie makes that we too – as the implicitly white, female audience – may be implicated in this story of the ways we ignore, forget or talk over black women?