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Critic's Notebook: 'The Help' goes beyond stereotypes

Perception of characters is grounded in personal experience. For a critic raised in the South, those in the '60s-set film are relatable.

September 06, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Emma Stone (left) stars as Skeeter Phelan and Viola Davis stars as Aibileen Clark in this scene from DreamWorks Pictures" "The Help", based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.
Emma Stone (left) stars as Skeeter Phelan and Viola Davis stars as Aibileen… (Dale Robinette / DreamWorks )

In "The Help's" homespun story of racism in '60s-era Mississippi, some saw stereotypes. I saw pieces of my childhood — for better or worse.

That's the inherent difficulty of deciding what is and is not a stereotype. How we view any character is grounded in personal experience — what you know well you see differently. What plays as exaggeration, even parody, can reveal deeper truths. And that was the case for me with "The Help."

When the subject is race, the stakes are ratcheted up, as we saw in the highly charged reactions in 2009 to "Precious" and "The Blind Side," very disparate films both pummeled for what some considered Hollywood's version of racial profiling. The faces of race relations in "The Help" — framed with such specificity in Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny and Celia by actresses Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, respectively — were not strangers to me. If anything, they felt like old friends, and given the film's surprisingly warm embrace at the box office, topping $120 million and attracting a cross-section of moviegoers, others may feel the same way.

Davis' nurturing but wounded Aibileen, and Spencer's spitfire Minny, who spent their lives caring and cleaning for white families, brought memories flooding back. Aibileen's determination that the baby girl in her care, the towheaded toddler, would know just how special she was, reduced me to tears. Minny's impatience with Hilly Holbrook's (Bryce Dallas Howard) nonsense and her rich slice of revenge lifted me right back up.

I knew what it was to be a black maid's "baby girl" being raised in Tampa, Fla., in racially charged times, though never as explosive as in Mississippi. A soul-warming smile and a sharp tongue when crossed by a willful child, Amanda Dupree raised me as much as my mother for the first seven years of my life. I felt the power of that presence next to me almost from the moment the lights went down. "The Help" became a communal experience that night in a different way, its images re-immersing me in a South that I knew only too well.

The line between a character that feels organic and one that feels a fraud is always a tricky one for filmmakers. We want them to populate movies with people who are "relatable" — i.e. recognizable and realistic — a good thing. When characters are too "relatable," they drop down the scale, marginalized as "stereotypes," not to be taken as seriously. When they are too extreme, they are branded a "cliché," dismissed out of hand. It's a sliding scale we critics use all the time.

But I found I could even find a little forgiveness for the extremes of Howard's Hilly — the portrayal, not the actions. Fear of equality and integration had made her brittle, her separate but equal bathrooms a desperate campaign to protect a way of life that she doesn't realize has already been lost. I had seen women like that at my mom's weekly bridge club in their crisply starched cotton dresses, their spines stiffened against change. But watching "The Help," I felt it hitting even closer to home, the remembered tension of a dinner at my grandmother's the summer before I was about to start school, one that would, as she put it, have me in classrooms alongside "colored children."

No words were minced that night as she made a separate-but-equal argument for my "protection" that is seared in my memory. I already knew my parents would stand fast. Being in Little Rock in the fall of '57 when schools were desegregated had changed my dad; his memories shaped me. Though the violence that rocked Mississippi never directly touched our lives, we felt the rising tensions. If anything, the dynamics of the human interactions, the conflicts, the conversations of my South, which stretched back generations to North Carolina tobacco and cotton farms, felt like pages out of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel on which the film is based.

The ways in which writer-director Tate Taylor, like Stockett, a Jackson, Miss., native, re-imagined it for the screen, resonated just as deeply. Looking at Skeeter steal out onto the wraparound porch of her house, I could see my great aunts outside in their rockers, sipping sweet tea and talking through hot summer afternoons. Even the issue of Skeeter's unruly hair — which some critics took umbrage with — dredged up stories of all the ways the aunts tried to tame my mother's.

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