How Viola Davis saves 'The Help'

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Image Credit: Dale Robinette

Here’s my contribution to the debate over The Help, the much-discussed, fast-growing hit about black domestic servants and their white employers in early-’60s Mississippi: It’s a flawed and even dishonest film in many little ways and some important big ones. Go anyway.

The Help’s problems range from the cosmetic to the profound. It may seem nitpicky to note that the early-Amy-Irving ringlets on aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan seem to have been teleported from 15 years in the future, and that the white characters’ outfits are all too store-window new, their wigs too Hairspray bright. But sloppy details make the big picture harder to believe. When a New York book editor airily urges Skeeter to finish her oral history of maids “before this whole civil rights thing blows over,” it reveals the movie’s own ignorance about what a Northern liberal would have believed in 1963. And that makes it hard to trust that it’s getting the South right, either.

The Help deserves real credit for venturing onto turf most studio films don’t go near, but told properly, its story should make audiences uncomfortable rather than complacent. And here’s where the movie goes most wrong. Its villain, Hilly Holbrook — a hypocritical, smug, near-psychotic queen of the mean girls who would rather spit her own maid out into a hurricane than let her use her toilet — is so overdrawn that anyone not wearing a white hood can feel enlightened by comparison. But most ladylike Southern racists didn’t behave like Cruella De Vil. The “nice,” the moderate, and the well-meaning — some of them were even good mothers! — also inflicted a thousand small insults and injuries that remain more challenging to confront. Instead of going there, The Help indulges in lowball comedy and the soothing cliché that black caregivers are almost supernaturally maternal, with enough love and time for their own children and their white charges. The fact that a stereotype is meant as a compliment doesn’t make it less simplistic. And the twist that a delicious meal cooked by a nice white lady is what gives outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) the fortitude to leave her abusive husband isn’t merely patronizing; it’s a violation of everything we know about her strong-willed character.

But for all its lazy thinking, The Help convinced me that sometimes, performances can achieve a much deeper reality than the story that contains them. That’s certainly true of what Viola Davis, one of our toughest-minded, least sentimental actresses, does with Aibileen Clark. Over the years — as a maid in Far From Heaven, a desperate mother in Doubt, a betrayed wife in Broadway’s Fences — Davis has created a gallery of women striving to hold on to rationality and pride even as the odds tilt against them. Her Aibileen is sorrowful, exhausted, and wary. When she walks, you feel the rust in her back and knees; when she misses the bus home because Skeeter wants to talk to her, her eyes and shoulders tell you what it costs her to extend her day. Using her controlled physicality, her low voice, and her radar for realism, she quiets the movie down — which it desperately needs — and turns herself into the embodiment of the pain, compromise, and strength The Help otherwise struggles to get right. Davis’ integrity melds so seamlessly with Aibileen’s that her work is wrenching on an almost unconscious level — the same way that older audiences may feel somehow gut-punched to see Cicely Tyson, 40 years after Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, playing the aged, humiliated servant Constantine.

These performances don’t just elevate The Help, they force the movie under your skin. There’s a scene in which a dozen maids assemble at Aibileen’s house, ready to tell their stories. Suddenly the screen is filled with mostly unfamiliar African-American actresses. If you imagine that even in 2011, they have the same opportunities as their white counterparts, think again. Their presence resonates; they remind us that The Help isn’t just about history but about our world. If that unsettles you, you should see the movie soon. And if for some reason it doesn’t, you should see it sooner.

Read more:
‘The Help': EW’s review
Is ‘The Help’ a condescending movie for white liberals? Actually, the real condescension is calling it that
Box office preview: ‘The Help’ prepares for ‘Don’t Be Afraid of Our Colombiana Brother’


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  • LibbyP

    Excellent article.

    • Lily

      Agree, Libby. . . Viola Davis is extraordinary in The Help. She’s amazing in every part I’ve seen her play, however big or so. And Octavia Spencer is marvelous in The Help also. I hope they both get Oscar nominations.

    • L.T.

      I disagree! I loved the movie have seen it twice will see it again! Fierce and Courageous performance from everywhere! Weren’t we told from the start of the film that this was from the viewpoint of a Black MAID so it does not say ANYWHERE that this is the ACCURATE OBJECTIVE take on the southern situation. Just sit back and enjoy a good MOVIE!

      • Esther

        How do I contact the producer to tell him/her how badly I was treated because I spoke out about the movie??

    • Owen

      If the writer is African American he is horribly misguided in his beliefs. If he is white, that was one of the most subtly racist missives I’ve ever read. For shame either way.

      • Owen

        Oh, and also somewhat misogynist.

      • Grace

        The writer seems to have totally misunderstoon key sequences in the film. The reason the NYC editor is so flippant and thinks civil rights will “blow over” illustrates the ignorance of many whites who were so used to the status quo that it did not seem to them that the protests would effect lasting change. Just as many believed the Cold War would never end, South Africa would always have apartheid and no man would ever set foot on the moon. It was inlcluded in the film to highlight that the film takes place early in the civil rights movement. I find that northerners are the ones having the most trouble getting The Help; I wager that since Octavia Spencer , the novel’s writer and the director all grew up in the South and have been friends for decades they are entitled to produce a film about their collective Southern past, even if it rankles northerners to air out the dirty laundry, so to speak.

      • Owen

        Yes, I’d be interested in knowing from where Mark Harris hales. Reading your post, I might restate, if white, that Mr. Harris truly believes he ISN’T racist. He clearly is, but there’s such a smug liberal shading to the article, I actually think what I read as subtle racism, was just racism masked by misguided liberal conviction. Whatever, Mr Harris has issues (possibly some he doesn’t even know he has…)

      • Esther

        I think some persons didn’t like the movie because it made them feel guilty, and to think the movie just showed a little of the injustice.

    • Michelle Hall

      Mark Harris, Your article is spot on, insightful and intuitive. Kudos on the masterful navigation of following a path you were obviously destined to grace. I agree whole heatedly of your critique of Ms. Davis’ performance and hope for the opportunity to celebrate her receipt of a much deserved Oscar Award.

  • Nee Nee

    Interesting article. I’m just reading the book right now. It’s not the kind of book I typically would read, but I really like it. Obviously, I haven’t done any extensive research into what life was like in that time, so I can’t comment on the historical accuracy. But it does tell a story from a perspective I don’t think I’ve ever considered. And I do realize that it is just that – a story. I do have to say that the comment about Skeeter’s hair is a little weird. That’s kind of how I pictured her hair. Some people do have hair that look like that, naturally. Trust me. And it didn’t just start in the 80’s.

    • lola

      I am with you on the hair comment, didn’t make any since,

      • Mags

        Not to mention that in the book it was said that her hair was very curly and frizzy.

  • Meier

    I won’t be surprised if Davis earns another Oscar nomination for this film. Being a summer release, I will be surprised if she wins an Oscar. I’d love to see her win one in the future though; she’s like an even more talented Lynne Thigpen.

    • Regina George

      Of course she’s going to be nominated.

    • Esther

      I got a lease violation write up, because I stated that the movie Help was about how the white women only wanted the blacks to clean their houses, cook their meals, and take care of their chldren. Not just reported once but seven time by seven white women, office said I violated their civil rights because i hurt their feeling, never swore or used slured words, just white women, even corrporate came down to correct me for speaking, oh ya my freedom of speech I was told did not out way their civil rights/hurt feeling. what do you think of that, it reminded me of being back in the sixties, for a moment I thought I was in the movie Help.

  • Zach

    Really good article. It gets to my mixed feelings about the movie – yes, an important story, but not really a great movie. Davis is easily the best thing in it because she’s given the deepest material to work with; she makes it relevant and emotional. However, Spencer still deserves special recognition for being a hoot and lending her character conviction. One just wishes the script would have focused less on the cliched, less multidimensional white characters (though Howard, Chastain, Stone, and Janney all give fine performances) and dug deeper into the internal struggles and external conflicts faced by these women. Yes, there are touches, but then half the film focuses on the fallout from the cake drama or Skeeter’s first romance. Davis deserves the recognition she’s getting, but she also deserved a richer character.

  • slizzard

    I never really knew what the white liberals were on about when they called the movie racist/dangerous/irresponsible. But this guy’s comments about Hilly, the villains, and the saintly stereotypes made it clearer to me. So thanks.

    Disagree about Minny and the dinner though. Sometimes even the strongest people need an act of kindness to show them their worth again.

    Good job Viola!

    • Bethie R.

      I agree about the Minny remark. I think Minny gained a boost of self-esteem through that meal – she’d manage to take the flakey woman who couldn’t boil water and teach her how to cook amazing meals. Acknowledging that fact – that Minny is vastly talented and can accomplish things – gave her the boost she needed to leave her abusive relationship. I don’t think it had anything to do with the actual consumption of food.

      • L.T.

        AMEN to tHAT!

  • PJ

    Minny doesn’t leave her husband because a meal was cooked for her. She left him because she was told she’d always have a job with Celia and her husband, thus she didn’t need Leroy’s income to sustain her family. Gotta pay attention, Mark Harris.

    • lola

      I agree with PJ, pay a little more attention.

    • Valerie

      I agree – this film requires full attention.

      • L.T.

        Mosdef! I’ve sen it twice and still raving about it will definitely see it again tagging friends along.. this reminds me of American Beauty when it came out in 1999!

    • Holly

      Another thing that he got wrong was “with enough love and time for their own children and their white charges”. One of the first questions Skeeter asks Aibileen was how it felt to raise the white children, while someone else was raising her own.

      • LM

        Yeah, seriously, PJ and Holly are right on. Some of the other criticisms he makes are nonsensical too – like the hair criticism, and his naive belief that a heinous person like Hilly is an “overdrawn” character who wouldn’t exist in real life, and his naive belief that all New Yorkers immediately supported/took seriously the burgeoning civil rights movement (coming from a family of generations of New Yorkers, I can tell you that that is not true), and how he seems to believe that Hilly was the only white character in the film to treat the maids badly (even Skeeter demeans Aibileen, like when she won’t help Aibileen carry the laundry in from the rain). Mark Harris clearly didn’t pay close attention to this movie. Sounds like he had a lot of pre-conceived biases before seeing it, and was just looking for faults.

      • Amanda

        I would agree with Mark’s criticism of Hilly. I think Bryce Dallas Howard did a marvelous job with her and I certainly agree that there are people in the world just as evil as she is, but the movie seemed to try to make the white woman charicatures instead of fully formed characters. In the movie, it was never understood why Elizabeth was the way she was or some of the other white characters in the book. It would’ve been a much more interesting movie if all the characters had been given more depth.

      • Brenda

        @Amanda, Aibleen’s narrative states that “the baby blues” hit Elizabeth hard, which may not be all that’s behind the way she treats her daughter, but it’s part of it.

    • Juneau

      ITA – Agreed with the article with the exception of Minny’s motivation to leave Leroy. She also left because she knew she could stand on her own after helping another woman (a white woman) so significantly.

    • Rob

      Give a listen to the voice-over narration: “That meal was what gave Minny the strength to leave…” It’s right there in the movie.

      • PJ

        And what did they say at the meal? “You’ll always have a job here.” It’s right there in the movie.

      • Maria

        My thinking is that Minny got the strength to leave Leroy through multiple sources. The promise of a job and financial security, for sure. But also seeing how she as able to teach the lady cook, and the lady in questions grew in the process. Maybe Minny saw that she can also grow. And the meal was also a representation of people really valuing and respecting her. Maybe that made her think that she is worth more and better than the abusive Leroy.

  • C

    I haven’t seen this film yet, but the article and comments make me think of “The Kids Are All Right,” which I had mixed feelings about as well. In the end it made me realize there are films that are more important than they are well written. “The Help” sounds like it is along those same lines.

  • Katie

    This is one of the first arguments about the movie’s flaws that I actually felt explained why the flaws might be considered so. Even if I don’t fully agree with it, it’s a good article. While I feel that the cast as a whole was spot-on the material, I do feel like Viola Davis was especially amazing! I don’t know if she will get an Oscar with all the “Oscar movies” yet to come but, I think she certainly deserves it.

    • Valerie

      Watch, Viola deserves an Oscar, but, she won’t get it. One day there may be a movie about The Movie Industry that will be/fell a lot like “The Help”. JMO

    • Esther

      Viola Davis was outstanding.

  • kate middleton

    Really good article. I think you make a good point that the movie could be more impactful if Hilly wasn’t so “overdrawn” as you said. I enjoyed the book, but thought the story could have been tighter.
    I liked the movie more than the book, largely because of Viola Davis’ performance. She was MASTERFUL. And I’m only 29, but Cicely Tyson’s scenes were the most heart-breaking for me. The look on her face when Skeeter’s mom kicked her out? That really got me.

  • drew

    I don’t understand why anyone would roll their eyes at the idea of Hilly Hollbrook. She’s a vicious, cruel, manipulative control freak. Ask any personal assistant in Hollywood if such people exist.

    • Ms. Chanandler Bong

      And some people are truly like that. She was clearly the queen bee so it went with the territory, I would question it more if they were all portrayed that way. But you can see how uncomfortable Elizabeth Leefolt is when Hilly’s at her nastiest.

    • AM

      True- but thinking within the context of the time and the place it makes perfect sense. As a black woman who has been to the South the racist undertones I experienced were just that- undertones. Its not the bold racist comments that glare at you. Its the smaller insidious ones that are hard to explain, hard to describe and cut the deepest.

      • diane

        As a Black woman who grew up in the south and who had family members who worked as maids for white families, I can tell you that the racism was not always subtle. Especially in the 60’s, it was often quite blatant-so to me Hilly is not that far off the mark. SOME whites did behave in that manner, long before it was more PC to be more clandestine with prejudices.

      • Arie

        The weekend The Help came out, I watched the PBS special on the Freedom Riders. One of the female riders stated that during one of the awful run-ins in Birmingham, she saw lots of women with babies on their hips, yelling ‘Kill the N”.

      • jj

        No need to go back to the 60’s just go to the suburbs. Better yet, install a nanny cam on the upper east side.

  • Doty

    Excellent article. You really explained why the movie is problematic, but also how a great performance can bring intelligence and subtlety to such flawed material.

  • sly

    There’s too much stereotyping in this article … why not accept that not all “northern liberals” would feel the same way about the civil rights movement and maybe this particular individual would have a different opinion? why not accept that not all “southern ladies” would behave in a more civilzed manner than Hilly’s character? I’ve seen the film and read the book and both are excellent. I agree with PJ’s comments that Mark Harris should have been paying better attention – why get stuck on the wardrobe and Emma Stone’s hairdo? that’s just asinine … Mr. Harris, you need to look at the big picture (pardon the pun) of this film … and the message it’s conveying, quite nicely I might add!

    • Zach

      I agree about that – wasn’t even sure that the editor was so clearly a Northern liberal.

      • Rob

        Well, she works at Harper & Row, in New York, and she’s interested in publishing a book filled with the unheard voices of Southern maids. So I think “Northern liberal” is a fair guess. And by 1963, anybody in her position who had been reading the newspaper for the last 15 years would have known civil rights wasn’t going to “blow over.”

      • thin

        She was interested in publishing the book because that was the direction the wind was blowing, and she saw the potential for big sales. She says as much in the movie. Any interpretations one wants to make about her character and motivations is speculation, and as others have said, there were plenty of New Yorkers (as everywhere else) that weren’t behind the Civil Rights movement at the time.

    • nope

      More than likely, Skeeter would have ironed her hair. Big, curly hair for whites didn’t become popular until the mid to late sixties because of people like Art Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and Chris Hillman of the Byrds.

    • Lisa

      Exactly what I came here to say. I couldn’t get past the stereotypes in the article the writer makes.

  • Carla Houston

    I think this article hits on a lot of good points about the movie. As a woman of color in her 40’s, this movie resonates with me on many levels. I understand the naysayers and the things they point out, and I agree with some critics and disagree with others. But I agree 100% with Mark Harris – see it anyway. If we only saw Hollywood movies that were historically accurate and fair to everyone portrayed, we wouldn’t be seeing many movies. I will take a movie with what I think are at least good intentions in those respects, and that portray deep emotions and showcase stellar actors. The Help ticks all of those boxes. I identify with all of the characters in some way, black and white, even though some are obviously more characatures than characters. But between the two of them, Viola Davis and Cicley Tyson had me in tears for most of the movie, and it was a good cry! I say go see this movie, if for no other reason than to see some great performances and form your own opinions about the content.

  • Maggie

    Since the Author is from the south getting the northern part wrong doesn’t mean it got the southern part wrong .. This would only be the case if all writers came from New York .. They don’t, Do you? IS they why you make that assumption?

  • Melissa

    To say “the soothing cliché that black caregivers are almost supernaturally maternal, with enough love and time for their own children and their white charges” is so inaccurate that I wonder if Harris has actually seen the movie. The point that they spent all their time dealing with their employers’ children that they didn’t have time to devote the same time and energies to their own families was a big part of the story. To walk away with anything other than that tells me you spent too much time dissecting small parts to fit your opinion or expectations and far too less actually paying attention to the story. This isn’t the first EW article about this movie to get a big piece just flat out wrong.

    • AM

      It IS a cliche. A cliche that as a black woman I am SO tired of seeing.

      • Melissa

        @AM — My gripe was not with his term “cliche”. My gripe was his statement that they had as much time for their own children as their white charges. I’m pretty sure he saw a different movie than I did. The movie (and book) made the strong point that all their time was devoted to making a less than meager living tending to their employers’ children with very little time and energy left over for their own. If you’re going to call a movie on a cliche, at least call out the right cliche.

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