Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA/India/United Arab Emirates, 2011. DreamWorks, Reliance Entertainment, Participant Media, Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, 1492 Pictures, Harbinger Pictures. Screenplay by Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett. Cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt. Produced by Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Brunson Green. Music by Thomas Newman. Production Design by Mark Ricker. Costume Design by Sharen Davis. Film Editing by Hughes Winborne. Academy Awards 2011. Golden Globe Awards 2011.
Racism is given the soft-shoe Hollywood treatment with a view of the south on par with Gone With The Wind in this wan adaptation of the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. As films about the birth of the civil rights movement go, it has nothing on better movies like Corrina Corrina or The Long Walk Home; in fact, as female ensemble period pieces go it hardly manages to outdo How To Make An American Quilt. It revolves around the experiences of a budding journalist (Emma Stone) who longs to be different than her Stepford-esque peers by making a name for herself as a writer. While working a cleaning advice column for her local paper, Stone finds herself becoming sympathetic towards the oppressed black maids who work in her neighbourhoods’ homes and decides to interview them about their lives. The two she gets most of her stories from, played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, have decades of tales to tell about raising other people’s children and the losses from their own lives. What should have been an emotionally dislodging tale about America’s nasty racist history even following the abolition of slavery is rendered with insulting simplicity: the black characters are presented in a vague, Noble Savage light who are announced to be telling their tale but very little specific experience is actually related, while the white characters are reduced to cardboard stereotypes in order that the guilty white audience can feel better about themselves (when a character like Bryce Dallas Howard‘s cruel socialite is barely a step above a Disney stepmother villain, you can comfortably convince yourself that you never would have been racist during the time when it was an institution). In case anyone is wondering, the civil rights movement was not a force of history because of any well-meaning white girls; I love that at a time and place where people were being sprayed with fire hoses for sitting at lunch counters and a man was shot at the ballot box for trying to vote while being black (and shot by a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, who was also his childhood fishing buddy, who then was acquitted on self-defense) there’s a movie out there where justice takes the form of a testimonial book and a slice of poo pie. One scene involving Allison Janney rejecting her maid (Cicely Tyson) against her own desires encompasses all the conflict and complexity that the rest of the film never manages to muster, the only moment that faintly recalls the kind of anecdotes related in excellent documentaries like Freedom On My Mind. Its failed political aims aside, the film also suffers from a hackneyed screenplay that never picks enough of a focus and barely works itself up to a reasonable climax, which is not good considering the 145-minute running time. Instead, Tate Taylor unintelligibly veers randomly between high drama and uncomfortable farce (are we really supposed to believe that a room full of grown women would all jump under their card tables because the trashy girl showed up at their party?) Taylor seems to be unaware of the genuinely tragic nature of the lives he is displaying here; Jessica Chastain‘s delightful Marilyn-esque housewife and her husband reward Spencer’s hardworking maid by cooking her a meal and telling her she has a job as their underpaid domestic for as a long as she likes, and they say it without a shred of irony. Davis and Spencer are terrific, while classic southern gals like Mary Steenburgen and Sissy Spacek are wasted in bit roles, but it seems like there are two movies stitched into one here, and at least one of them is very stupid.