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.