Three summers ago, I went to visit a friend in West Texas. She took a group of us to a restaurant in a big, well-appointed country house. At some point during the meal, one of us saw something alarming. A ceramic statue of a squat black woman was propping open a door. It was the sort of figurine that sums up a particular strain of race in America. The owner was a tall white woman who looked 50 in a very young way. When I asked her about the statue, her face lit up. “Oh, mammy,’’ she said. “Isn’t she wonderful?’’
I don’t know what kind of racist craziness we expected her to express, but that wasn’t it. I was the lone black person in our group, which also included only one native Southerner, and as a confrontation brewed between this woman and the young people in her restaurant, I watched her defiance turn into something else. “Mammy is strong,’’ she kept saying. “Mammy raised me.’’ We saw a loaded insult. She saw an emblem of welcoming. We were mad. And our anger broke her heart.
This pretty much captures the cognitive dissonance of watching “The Help’’: One woman’s mammy is another’s man’s mother. What can you do? It’s possible both to like this movie - to let it crack you up, then make you cry - and to wonder why we need a broad, if sincere dramatic comedy about black maids in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 and ’63 and the high-strung white housewives they work for. The movie is too pious for farce and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time.
Ads mostly feature the white actors in various tizzies, using accents wide as a boulevard. It’s “Tin Magnolias.’’ Meanwhile, the heart of the film itself belongs to Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), the two very different maids and best friends at the center of the story. Aibileen is stoic. Minny is defiant. But the movie, like the extremely popular Kathryn Stockett novel it’s based on, uses the civil rights movement to suggest that the help could use some help. And so a young white woman named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) finds herself writing a controversial book in the words of the maids who work in the homes of her girlfriends.
The movie wants us to know that both sets of women are in tough spots. When Skeeter’s friend and the film’s queen bee, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), insists that a separate bathroom for the maids enhances the value of one’s house, it also puts social pressure on women like Skeeter and Hilly’s former classmate, Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), who employs Aibileen, to build one. Meanwhile, the maids, who talk anonymously to Skeeter in Aibileen’s little shack, don’t want to lose their jobs for doing so.
Jackson is a small enough place that when Minny does something entertainingly awful to Hilly and loses her job working for Hilly’s dithering mother (Sissy Spacek), she has to sneak a job on Jackson’s outskirts, working for Celia (Jessica Chastain), a five-and-dime Marilyn Monroe who’s thrilled that skeptical Minny actually wants the job of maintaining her enormous house.
Skeeter’s exposé is meant to empower both the subjects and the author, but “The Help’’ joins everything from “To Kill a Mockingbird’’ to “The Blind Side’’ as another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism. Skeeter enjoys all the self-discovery and all the credit. She cracks the mystery of her missing childhood maid (Cicely Tyson). She finds a career at a moment in which women rarely had them. And she changes the lives of a couple of dozen black women whose change is refracted primarily through her. Skeeter’s awakening is a seemingly risk-free reassurance, just as Hilly’s Hanna-Barbera villainy is a kind of delight. The meaner she gets the bigger and higher her hair goes.
The novel made a lot of people feel good. It was sneaky. Stockett wrote tolerably in Aibileen and Minny’s voices - in a way that keeps black vernacular inside dignified English, and avoids the literary dehumanization that Toni Morrison has written about. But as much as the book was about race and class, it was really about how feminism empowered Skeeter, and Stockett, to address other injustices.
Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of Stockett, adapted and directed the movie. He applies a thick coat of gloss to most scenes. It’s hard not to imagine what trouble the passive, largely absent husbands of these bigoted women are up to off-screen. The death of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers is reported on television, so white supremacy is in the air, but the movie would have us believe that the racism of the time was the stuff of bridge clubs. Indeed, the meanest male in the movie is the abusive, mostly unseen black husband who, in a poorly made sequence, comes after Minny.
Taylor opts for vibrancy. He encourages every actor’s performance to take up as much room in a scene as it can. Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s self-conscious, marriage-obsessed mother, and she comes as close to “Mama’s Family’’ as one can get without being Vicki Lawrence or Carol Burnett. Playing to the back of the house works better for Chastain, whose breathy dingbat is a universe away from the beatific mother she played in “The Tree of Life.’’ She and Spencer create great comedy out of the social science fiction of their relationship, and their scenes are the best in the movie. We’ve never seen this before: two stereotypes forging new human ground together. Minny shows Celia she can be a good wife, and Chastain’s surprise is like a joke whose punch line you’re happy to keep forgetting.
Davis goes the opposite direction. She’s a character actor lost in another role. This one is tough. She’s asked to be serious and thoughtful amid assorted offenses. But you can tell it’s the back story of Aibileen’s murdered, college-bound son she’s clinging to. It was an inspired idea to give her gold caps and show her once without her wig. Few women keep a movie tethered to earth just by folding their hands and staring at another actor. Her touch is soft, though. She could pin a corsage on you with a sword.
And yet here’s the question you ask as you watch a black actor in 2011 play a white lady’s maid, decades and decades after that was the only job a black woman in Hollywood could get. What went through the minds of Davis, Spencer, and Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Hilly’s maid, as they put on those uniforms and went to work? What went through the minds of the extras? A movie now about black maids in the 1960s can try to reconfigure all black maids in the movies. But it’s an uphill climb that only the playwright Lynn Nottage has even come close to managing.
“The Help’’ comes out on the losing end of the movies’ social history. The best film roles three black women will have all year require one of them to clean Ron Howard’s daughter’s house. It’s self-reinforcing movie imagery. White boys have always been Captain America. Black women, in one way or another, have always been someone’s maid. These are strong figures, as that restaurant owner might sincerely say, but couldn’t they be strong doing something else? That’s the hardest thing to reconcile about Skeeter’s book and “The Help’’ in general. On one hand, it’s juicy, heartwarming, well-meant entertainment. On the other, it’s an owner’s manual.