What about The Help?

I’ve long avoided reading and watching The Help. I shrugged it off as white feel-gooder fare and sneered at the seemingly well-intentioned, earnest white character who wants to make a difference.

After watching it tonight, I realize that I’m right and I’m wrong all at once. While The Help is certainly not a groundbreaking, incisive look at race relations in the South, it’s an interesting mainstream-friendly depiction of one aspect of life that has often been overlooked. Certainly some stereotypes creep in. Several characters are one-note, especially women. And it is very sentimental. But I can’t hate it like I wish I could. Why is that?

First, the things that trouble me. Let’s start with the depiction of racism. While the film alludes to the killing of Medgar Evers, there’s no real sense of danger that pervades the lifes of the many African-Americans forced to live and work in subpar conditions, all while under the ever-present threat of lynching at the hands of the KKK. In fact, the KKK never even gets a mention. Why is the biggest racist manifestation in the movie the wealthy women’s insistence that a separate bathroom be built for their help (with flushing toilets and a roll of toilet paper to boot? Wouldn’t they realistically have insisted on an outhouse in the backyard? But I digress).

And then, there’s the many wishful-thinking anachronisms present. To be honest, The Help is neither the first nor last offender in this case. But it’s present. I can’t help but think that the homes depicted on the “wrong side of the tracks” were probably on par with, if not better than, several middle-class white homes. Did the ramshackle homes African-Americans were forced to live in have telephones, electric stoves, electricity, or several rooms? I’m not so sure. I’m not sure that all homes have all those conveniences now, come to think of it.

But the subtle, nuanced performance Viola Davis gives saves many of the melodramatic, Disneyish elements of the film. As someone who fights bitterness and pain, she keeps journals of her thoughts, hoping someday to write. She loves her young charge, but admits the conflicted feelings towards her employer. She is neither sassy nor platitudinal nor Mammy-esque. This portrayal does add some interesting complexity to what could have been a Lifetime movie role.

And it’s just so hard to hate something that’s so earnest. As a former history major, I may roll my eyes at the optimistic, oversimplification of history. But it’s given me something to think about. And if it gives the legions of so-called soccer moms reading and watching it something to think about too, then perhaps it’s not such a bad thing altogether.

*For an excellent, balanced review, I highly recommend film/culture website Pajiba’s take.

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2 Comments

Filed under History, Movies

2 responses to “What about The Help?

  1. I haven’t read the book, but I want to. You’re right about the inconsistency with accuracy. I think there is power in theater. I went to see it and I’m not sure if it was because it was on the big screen or I was just super emotional that day or whatever the case may be, but I cried through half the move because it was so emotional. For some reason I had thought it was a Rom-Com feel gooder and I turned to Erica and Mandy and said…you should have warned me about this one! I’m not sure if I saw it on my tv if it would elicit that same reaction out of me. I’m such a baby when it comes to sentimental things though! Glad you enjoyed it more than you thought you would!

  2. Marc

    I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get past The Help’s gross mishandling of the issue of domestic violence, something that gets completely overlooked because it doesn’t fit into any of the binaries the film constructs to reduce its content to the lowest common denominators. There are no in-betweens in this film, no shades of grey — the white women are either saints or single-minded racists, and it perhaps goes without saying that the black women are (necessarily, for a film like this) ALL saints. Characters don’t develop so much as they shift suddenly from one binary to another. Skeeter’s mother, for example, suddenly becomes supportive of her daughter in the film’s final minutes, demonstrating a self-awareness that she could not possibly possess, if we reflect on her previous actions and attitudes.

    Similarly, the decisions made by individual women to aid in writing Skeeter’s book are unconvincing. (Minnie’s decision is perhaps the least convincing of them all, but the scene is played for comedy to mask its ludicrousness.) And it IS, ultimately, Skeeter’s book: “her” story is the last to be recorded, implying not only that it’s somehow necessary, but that it’s the most important out of all of them. Furthermore, she is the only character for whom the book facilitiates an actual, physical escape from Jackson — a town seemingly unaffected by the book, incidentally, aside from the fact that the cheeks of all its white women are now considerably wetter. But don’t worry, we’re told, Minnie has a job as a maid for life, “if she wants it” (as if there are abundant other opportunities for employment available to her). And thank goodness, too, for her revelation that white people are capable of kindness, and — to get back to my first point — for the “determination” this revelation gives her to free herself (and her never-seen children) from the domestic violence she has withstood for years!

    Or maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe you’re right — the fact that soccer moms are thinking and talking about The Help could be a good thing, and maybe something this pandering is the ONLY way to reach some people. I guess I just fear that its intended audience will take the wrong things away from it alongside the right ones; and I wonder, sometimes, if in the case of topics so critically important for us all to understand, that really leaves us any better off as people, or as a society.

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