Even more than in the book, the film downplays the ugliness of Jim Crow and fixates on the goodness of its white protagonist
“How do you try to feel like a good country when you’ve done shitty things as an entire nation?”
That question came from comedian Louis C.K. at the end of a recent episode of his sitcom Louie. He’d been contemplating how to explain to his daughters the many uses of “nigger” in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. But he could have asked the same question when thinking about The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular novel about black domestic workers and the women who employed them in 1960s Mississippi, the movie adaptation of which arrives in theaters today.
Stockett’s novel presented a vision of segregation in service of a feel-good story, but the film version of The Help is even more distant from the virulence of American racism. Its villains, Junior League bigots who wear smart little suits to cover their scales, are so cartoonish that viewers won’t risk recognizing themselves or echoes of their behavior in them. The heroines—a privileged, liberal, white Mississippi woman named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) and two black domestic workers, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (a particularly good Octavia Spencer)—are much easier to identify with. The project that brings them together, a secret oral history of maids’ lives in Jackson, may spotlight the domestic side of racism. But other than a mention of unenforced minimum-wage laws and a scene of the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ murder, the movie is disengaged with the public legal framework that let white women treat their white servants dreadfully in private. In The Help, whether you’re black or white, liberation’s just a matter of improving your self-esteem.