The Help (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
24Sep/110

The Help (2011)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

The release of The Help has sent up the alarms because, ladies and gentleman, as so happens every once in a blue moon, we have a film that doesn't specifically market itself at just black people or just white people.

This is troubling to a majority of film critics who know of nothing but whining about 3D and finding exciting new adjectives for describing Ryan Reynolds, so the critical and analytical reaction to The Help could be best described as 'very quiet and on its tippy toes'.

And since there's nothing worse than when film critics decide it's time to dedicate a review to clueless social activism (example: see my reviews of religious films), I'll save all of the inquiring readers out there some time and panic: The Help is exactly 2.56 kilo-racisms.

Okay, okay, I'm exaggerating. No movie is that racist.

The sad truth is talking about the film is that people's opinions on race and racial harmony will invariably color things, even something that's as much of a lark as The Help, a film less interested in racial politics and radicalism than it is in illustrating and strengthening the bonds of the womanly spirit; it's far more Feminine Mystique than "I Have a Dream".

"I am this film's main good white person. Hello. How are you?"

Most of the ire for The Help seems to come from the fact that the film contains not one, but three protagonists, and, most importantly, one of them is white. She's Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young woman recently returned from college, to find her friends from high school have started pumping out babies like they're made of solid gold. When she discovers that her mother's dress doesn't fit, it's to act as a metaphorical slap to the head-- we get it, she's different.

So do we need a white girl in a film about how terrible it was to be black? I think so. Skeeter functions as the audience's 'in', a smart, ugly duckling turned swan who wants nothing more than to be liked and get revenge on the queen bee of Jackson, Mississippi. She and her arc are a couple steps above Lindsey Lohan's from Mean Girls, though the film's trappings are notably more ambitious. Considering the Civil Rights Era is a half century behind us at this point, creating a character who is smart, attentive, and the focal point for an audience is vital.

The second person in the trifecta is Viola Davis as Abilene, a maid who's spent her life raising children, even after losing her own. Her heartbreak is palpable and her experience the most insightful. She works at the beck and call of a mother who is having kids because her husband wants them, which disgusts Abilene. Her dwindling spirit and daring are the heart of the film, illustrating a woman who survives seeing the worst in others and still manages to find some peace.

The third and last leg of the film focuses on Minnie (Octavia Spencer), a maid known as the best cook in Jackson who becomes blacklisted (HA!) after an incident involving the town's resident racist-in-chief. She forms much of the film's comic relief as she begins working for flighty Celia (Jessica Chastain), a woman whose sexual liberation and tendency towards truthfulness leaves the town cold. Her own desire to be honest with Minnie leaves Minnie feeling the same sense of unease; how ready is she to be labeled as equal?

It's been a long... day's... night...

These three women come together to write a book. Skeeter takes the notes, while Minnie and Abeline relate their stories and worlds to a girl who can scarcely imagine it. They weave from these stories and experiences an ugly picture.

The Help creates a world that feels lived in, with luxurious homes tended to by black servants complimented by the shanties the servants live in. The large cast creates the feeling of a shadowy town pulsating with menace and social fears. While the film may not give you a grisly blood and guts depiction of this world, it does a fascinating job of implying them.

Now, some reviewers have been quick to point out the lack of a masculine presence in the film, and I can't help but feel that's wholly intentional, both historically and thematically. The tentacles of the patriarchy and the fear it inspires seep into every scene, as fathers and husbands attempt to remain above the fray, and instead spend the movie at the film's edges, lurking.

The white women have been removed from serving more useful roles in society-- the black maids have taken over the white women's mainly traditional duties: cooking, cleaning, and raising children-- and the white women now exist to function as nothing more than sex providers for the unseen men. This wholly degrading task leaves the white mothers with a well of pent up aggression and no one to take it out on but their maids, increasing their cattiness and hostility. No one's happy because no one can be fulfilled with such a precarious and unhealthy social order forced upon them.

These women-- Skeeter, Abilene, and Minnie-- must all struggle to buck off the lives they've been forced into. It can be funny and sometimes touching, but never as affecting as the film aims for.

Howard's character here is... two faced! God, film analysis is easy!

Which leads to the real trouble in leveling charges at the film is that, frankly, racism, as presented in The Help, is laughable. It's a bigotry so cartoonish it's almost outlandish-- replace black people with Yankee Doodle Pigeon and you'll have a good picture of things if you know your Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

But that's kind of what's nice about the movie. Watch Bryce Dallas Howard's character here-- now, how goddamn stupid would you have to be to sympathize with her? Howard's character is so archly shrill that the only thing missing is the mustache to twirl and Muttley cackling to the side. And that's who her character must be for this film, because, as simplistic as it is, creating a character who is indisputably despicable makes it easy to create a rallying cry.

People who call out The Help as being feel good or simplistic aren't terribly off, but most of the criticism I've read seem to come from people who wanted to see a different film. You can make movies about the Civil Rights movement, and you can make tough challenging movies about it. You can also make movies about the terrible things people inflict on each other, and how a history of forced societal stratification can be healed. The Help is the latter.

What the film says is that education, knowledge and truth are what will make the world a better place, and that the problems we face can be healed by understanding and freedom. These wounds still exist today, but with compassion and grace, things can get better.

Posted by Danny

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