When I first read the synopsis of this movie, I let out the most pretentious scoff you have ever seen this side of North London. I was instantly reminded by an interesting phrase used in literature and movies. A phrase popularised by Spike Lee in the early ’90s when discussing movies like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’. That phrase was the ‘Magical Negro’.
The Magical Negro is a character we are very familiar with and have seen in many movies. The Magical Negro is typically but not always socially disadvantaged and for whatever reason holds a low position like a janitor (or in this case a maid). They don’t usually have a backstory nor does the narrative care for it. They are almost always patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and are almost unrealistic in their knowledge.
The Magical Negro serves as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. The wisdom of the magical Negro is there to simply help the white protagonist be enlightened and become successful in their quest for their own or their races’ concept of redemption. [Morgan Freeman made a career out of this role.]
Then I watched the movie.
Now let me be clear at the start, while it certainly still borrows heavily from ‘The Magical Negro’ Hollywood playbook, this movie actually makes us forget that element.
The movie is (I am told) a faithful adaptation of a very successful book by Kathryn Stockett of the same name. The basic plot revolves around strong maid Aibileen who is played to what I call perfection by Viola Davis. There are not enough superlatives that can describe how wonderful Viola Davis is as an actress, so I simply won’t try. Suffice to say, it’s the reason you can’t keep your eyes of the screen.
The character of Aibileen is a black maid who spent all her lives working for white families and raising kids. The kids in turn grow up and become her bosses but treat her with the same Jim Crow-era disdain that their parents did.
Her closest friend is Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) also a maid but has more of an edge to her and is slightly more outspoken. Her outspoken nature doesn’t seem particularly abrasive but in ’60s Mississippi, this made her virtually unemployable.
They get involved with Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) who is a young white writer who seems to have come from another more progressive era where she didn’t necessarily buy into the Stepford Wives lifestyle or ’60s mindset.
The narrative is pushed along by the idea that Skeeter wanted to document the hardships of the black maids and write a novel about it. So far, so cliché. We even get a villainous young White woman , Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is almost cartoonish in her characterisation.
I was ready to hate this movie and then something happened. The performances. All round.
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer got a lot of accolades for their portrayals of the maids (with both being nominated for Oscars and Spencer actually winning one) but that is not to say there weren’t other performances. The cartoonishly villainous character of Hilly was played brilliantly by Bryce Dallas Howard. I would be surprised if she didn’t get a few pantomimes boos and hisses at the cinema. Even though the character itself wasn’t believable, she certainly was.
Then there was the unexpected great performance that came from a relatively minor character in the movie – Celia Foote, played by the excellent Jessica Chastain. The character of Celia is bimbo blonde who comes from a poor white family to marry a well to do young man who also happens to be Hilly’s ex-boyfriend. In anyone else’s hands that character could have easily been an annoying sub–plot, here she is touching in her innocence and tragic in her disposition.
The problem with this movie is that it is dealing with an incendiary subject matter but it treats its material with absolutely no sense of the seriousness it deserves. While director Tate Taylor or Kathryn Stockett were not out to make Mississippi Burning 2, there are some huge leaps to be made here. The maids would never tell their stories, knowing full well that the KKK husbands would try and take revenge.
Speaking of the husbands, the movie all but omits any male characters, on purpose of course. The idea of white racist males would add an element of viciousness that the film simply didn’t want. This was at heart a melodrama, and it endeavoured to stay that way. In fact, the constant attempts at our heart strings did get slightly jarring. For example, the needy little white girl that Aibileen was taking care of and Constantine (Cicely Tyson) the maid that raised Skeeter.
There are hints of the subordination the white women felt to their men in the ’60s which they transferred to their maids. The ditzy blonde character of Celia was interesting because of this – she was of the lowest class among the whites but treated her maids the best because she had a loving and supporting husband. Womens inequality is touched upon, but in keeping with the tone of this movie, in an inoffensive manner.
On the subject of gender inequality, when was the last time we saw a nearly all woman cast with this much accolade. So many strong performances are lost in a cliché platform such as this and you simply wish actresses like Viola Davis had more starring roles. Instead, Jennifer Anniston has more roles and presence. Sigh.
All in all, what we have is a tired format with a running time that is about 45 minutes too long, but due to some exceptional performances, unashamed but well executed melodrama and some strong female characters – ultimately a good movie. You will wish they were bolder with the script, but you will also be glad you saw this movie.
DVD EXTRAS: No Special Extras.
Deleted Scenes with introduction by director Tate Taylor
- A Senator’s Son
- Keep on Walkin’
“The Living Proof” Music Video