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Review: The Help (2011)

The Help (2011)

Directed by: Tate Taylor

Premise: Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, a young writer (Emma Stone) begins to catalogue the tales of African American maids.

What Works: The Help is a film about women and female social dynamics and it does give some very good actresses opportunities to showcase their abilities. Most notable are Emma Stone as Skeeter, a socially conscious writer, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as Aibileen and Minny, a pair of African American housemaids, and Sissy Spacek as Missus Walters, an aging but sassy matriarch. These actresses are very watchable and they bring a lot to roles that are largely underwritten. There are also some strong cinematic choices here; the interplays between the maids and the homeowners are effectively shot and edited and bring the subtext of their interactions to the surface. The Help is a film with a heavy burden to bear as it takes on the legacy of the Jim Crow era and images of African American domestic workers. This film seeks to undermine and unsettle the “Mammy” stereotype and although it is not entirely successful in doing that, the film is at least well intentioned.

What Doesn’t: There is a lot that is problematic about The Help. To start, there are some basic structural flaws with the screenplay. It is unclear who this story is about. The film shifts between Skeeter and Aibileen but there is no coherent point of view character and no one’s conditions or consciousness changes between the opening and the conclusion of the film. When the story introduces Skeeter she already has a liberated consciousness and the production of her book does not change her in any way. There is a similar problem with the African American maids. They are in a tough spot at the beginning but by the end they are in that same position and haven’t gotten any closer to justice or even a meaningful epiphany. The film also mishandles a lot of its subplots. For instance, Skeeter has an inexplicable romance with a virtually anonymous male character. The subplot is clearly intended to give Skeeter something to lose in the process of publishing her book. But Skeeter’s love interest is a non-character and the film makes no emotional investment in the relationship. The entire subplot could be cut from the film without losing anything. The Help also has problems with dramatic weight or tension, in that there isn’t any. The civil rights struggle of the 1960s plays in the background and the film even incorporates the assassination of civil rights leader Medger Evers into the plot but there is no connection between the broader historical background and the stories of the characters in the foreground. As the women set about compiling their stories, the production of the book lacks any pressure or obstacles that make its publication risky. This leads to the broader thematic problems of The Help, in that the film sanitizes and diminishes the Jim Crow era into a virtual Mean Girls-esque soap opera. The Help is a textbook example of a Hollywood film compromised by commercial sensibilities. Above all else, Hollywood is in the business of creating and selling commoditized fantasies. In romantic comedies where the guy and the girl find love and live happily ever after or action movies where the good guy triumphs over evil, audiences are treated to wish fulfillment. The Help seeks to do the same, creating a portrait of racism, letting the audience hiss and jeer at the bigots, and then cheer as the heroines get even. But the problem here is twofold. First, the film’s portrayal of Jim Crow era racism is too soft. A true representation of the period would more closely resemble a horror film than the mainstream entertainment presented here. By soft peddling the true nature of the period, the film creates a false impression of history. Second, after reducing a history of lynching and rape to gossip and cat fights, The Help minimizes racism to a personal level. Despite the fact that the images of The Help continually evoke links between racism and economic and social structures that are broader and deeper than any one person, the filmmakers manage to ignore all that and locate racism soley in the flaws of an obnoxious individual. And at that point the civil rights struggle is reduced to a scatological stunt not out place in a Farrelly Brothers movie in which in which racism is defeated by humiliating the oppressor. By the end, The Help attempts to have it both ways; the film tries to acknowledge the racism of the past but also refuses to confront the audience with the true severity and ugliness of that racism. This is a bit like if Schindler’s List had tried to depict a version of Holocaust in which no one got hurt. It is dishonest and lets the audience off the hook by giving them a pseudohistorical confection in which they are able to experience the illusory goodness of being post-Jim Crow without having to face the difficulties of that heritage.

Bottom Line: The Help has some good performances and director Tate Taylor demonstrates considerable filmmaking aptitude. But the film’s simpleminded view of racism and America’s racial history isn’t just pandering to the audience; it dilutes our understanding of our culture and of the very issues that the film claims to address.

Episode: #353 (August 21, 2011)