The Help

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress and twice for Best Supporting Actress at the 84th Annual Academy Awards…                 “I’ve never met a racist, but I’ve known plenty of them”. This is what I told a friend recently when discussing this past summer’s surprise smash, “The Help”. How many times have I heard the phrase, “I’m not a racist, but…”. If only I collected currency each time it is uttered. Hey, I’m a white guy in his mid 40’s living in the suburbs…who wants to listen to me expound on race in 21st century America? Too bad…because here it comes. I was also raised in the very urban Jersey City, New Jersey. Now, I live in a mostly white, mostly conservative suburb. Now, some are calling me a bleeding-heart liberal. That’s your issue, not mine. What I am, and try to be, is honest and aware. And I believe that I see, read or hear some level of racism every day. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s blatant. But I don’t recall ever seeing it in the form of the gorgon played by Bryce Dallas Howard in “The Help”. Howard’s character of Hilly follows a long line of Hollywood “wear it on their sleeve” racist caricatures. It’s a performance and a film that makes white people feel good about themselves. They are not like that Hilly character. And that’s because almost no one is. But I’m willing to bet that a lot of these same “The Help”-lovers have never attended a Spike Lee film…and Mr. Lee has been creating some marvelous movies depicting race relations in the U.S. of A for over 25 years. But he’s outspoken and controversial. No…they don’t want Spike’s version of this story. That would be too uncomfortable. Give them pretty Emma Stone as a young, white southern gal without a hint of prejudice in her, writing about black maids she grew up around. Make the maids all noble, honorable and strong without a hint of a real person in them. Make the racist characters over-the-top. And feature a subplot with a bubbly, ditsy performance from Jessica Chastain who turns out to—wait for it—not have a racist bone in her body. And neither does her mostly unseen husband. And they love their domestic so much that they cook her an extravagant meal and offer her a job for life. I smelled the blatant pandering in the trailer for this feature. And writer-director Tate Taylor works it the entire feature-length too.               The presence and gravitas of the incredible Viola Davis almost saves this damn thing. Ms. Davis is an extremely accomplished, award-winning stage AND screen performer, who most movie-goers have never heard of until now. She may win an Oscar for “The Help”…and she will deserve the accolade. She’s so damn good in this…and she does it without the benefit of cooking a shit pie. That little plot device is worked to death for just about the entire running time of this film. And it’s a tawdry bit of nonsense that is played for cheap laughs and overt comeuppance. And I don’t know, or care, if this focus on a tainted dessert was featured in the novel of the same name—it still stinks. It’s puerile. And the audiences gobbled it right up. I did appreciate aspects of Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Minny, so I won’t be too perturbed when she collects her Oscar on Sunday(trust me…you can mark that one down). But she did fall into some of the “Mammy” stereotypes she’s been accused of. Hey, Ms. Spencer didn’t write the screenplay, and I’m certain she delivered exactly what was asked of her. Jessica Chastain was absolutely luminous in “The Tree of Life”, so(of course)the Academy instead recognizes her for her flamboyance in this instead. The film is also capably constructed, and not quite as offensive as I thought it would turn out. So, I don’t discount the attempt to make this junk fly(and not forgetting that for most people, it certainly did). But this is a glossed-over soap opera posing as a serious examination of an ugly period in the Deep South(and it ain’t over yet, many will say).               People who loved this film will disagree with this review vehemently. So be it. But I ask them to google a bit about the film’s detractors(including the Association of Black Women Historians)and read about what they have to say. We have to get past this type of soft-sell history. Do we all really still need that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down(thank you Mary P.)? C’mon. I want to know more about Aibileen and Minny from their point of view. But most viewers don’t seem to care. And that’s a crying shame—not a forward step.            Grade:   C


6 comments on “The Help

  1. But I don’t recall ever seeing it in the form of the gorgon played by Bryce Dallas Howard in “The Help”.

    – Brilliant.

    “I’ve never met a racist, but I’ve known plenty of them”.


  2. Very eloquently put. You put into words everything I think but cannot convey. Great review!

    • Thank you, Julia! I’ve wanted to write something about this film for quite some time, but was never totally certain how to approach it. I’m pleased that a couple of my readers liked the end result enough to leave a reply. ML

  3. We watched this on Friday. After reading your review it was about what I expected.
    I read the book and found that somewhat more palatable because the race issues were a little more serious and devloped. The movie just wanted viewers to walk away feeling good. Which is an odd goal for a time period that was anything but rosey.

  4. And the desire is overwhelming to give the film a pass because you WANT to feel good. And also because of Viola Davis’ lovely, nuanced performance. But ultimately I can’t forgive it’s lapse into treacle and caricature. It’s insulting. ML

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