Movies about racism tread a fine line between being uplifting and being obviously written by white people who are trying to “fix” racism. While the good ones end up raising awareness in people who might not otherwise have it, the bad ones put a band-aid on the whole issue and figure it’s all better. There’s a lot that can go wrong in these kinds of movies, and when the majority of the major crew is white, it usually does.
The worst part is that they think they’re doing such a good job, and it feels downright mean to mention how poorly it turned out when you know their heart’s in the right place. That’s how The Help ends up feeling: you know what they’re setting out to do and can see that they’re trying, but they just can’t get it quite right.
Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone), inexplicably called “Skeeter” by her friends, has just returned home to Jackson, Mississippi after finishing her journalism degree at Ole Miss. While she spent her years away growing as a person, Skeeter finds that there is not much in the way of progressive thinking in Jackson. Nobody much approves on Skeeter’s decision to focus on her career instead of a family, and more worrisome, her childhood friend, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), is pushing a movement for all white homes to have separate bathrooms for the black hired help. Skeeter contacts Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), her friend’s maid, and with her help, gathers enough stories to let the world know exactly what’s happening behind the scenes in Jackson.
Given that description and the trailers for this movie, one would assume Skeeter is the main character, but it’s split mostly evenly between her and Aibileen. Skeeter certainly moves the plot along, but the focus of the story is on Aibileen and her life at work. We only see her home when Skeeter is there, leaving all of her development to happen with the little girl she takes care of. The only times she is happy in the entire film are when she is with that little girl, and they clearly mean the world to one another.
That brings me to the big issue in the movie. The reason Song of the South is so deplorable because it depicts black people as being overjoyed at their lives of servitude. You might think that a movie about scared women publicly admitting how terribly they’ve been treated would not have the same problem, but it really does. The few white residents of Jackson that aren’t horrible racists are completely idolized. It’s one thing to love your job, but the women speak so reverently of their nicer employers that it’s just uncomfortable.
Speaking of uncomfortable, my jaw actually dropped at some of the sections with Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer). The small amount of character development she has is not enough to give any depth to her role as “the sassy one.” She is little more than an offensive caricature. Seriously, there is a scene where she says something with attitude and then takes a bite of fried chicken. In fact, a lot of scenes with Minny involve fried chicken. Her cooking is pretty important to the story, but is that really the dish they had to choose in a movie about the beginnings of the civil rights movement? Really?
It’s actually hard to like any of the white characters because of how racist they are. Sure, it may be an accurate depiction of how people thought at the time, but when even the “nice” characters talk about their maids as a lesser species, it’s not very easy to like them. There are only three white people in the movie that acknowledge that black people are, in fact, people, and one of them still turns a blind eye to a lot of the mistreatment they go through.
There are far too many characters with too little development. I mentioned that Skeeter is not really the main character, and given that, there is far too much time spent on her mother and her extraneous love interest. I’m not sure why he was in the movie at all, really; it’s supposed to be some statement on how Skeeter also has to suffer some ostrasization because of her writing, but it doesn’t feel like much of a loss given what a twat the guy is from the beginning. As for the other characters, I can only imagine that their relationships are better explained in the book than they are in the movie. It’s lightly insinuated that Skeeter is friends with all the horrible white ladies in town, but when she disagrees with them so strongly, it doesn’t make sense that she still wants to hang out with them.
The pacing is pretty plodding, with the movie trying to balance between the interesting stories of the maids and the minutiae of Skeeter’s personal life. To give it some credit, I thought that this might be all about a pretty white lady who completely ends racism in her little southern town, but it’s not as bad as all that. Aibileen does end up making a stand for herself; Skeeter only helps her get started.
Overall, I wouldn’t say The Help is an atrocious attempt a feel-good movie and right in line with the line of thinking that racism is over because Obama was elected. I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t, however, argue too fiercely with anyone who did. I can see the merit in the movie and what it set out to do, but it fell too short to be worth seeing. It does make me interested in reading the book- maybe that’s where they were keeping all the depth.
Matthew Razak: 85 – Great: Supported by humor and a cast that is absolutely perfect for every role, The Help manages to climb out of the very dangerous hole of being just another film about a white person “solving” racism. With an honest, and often humorous look at “the help” in Mississippi during the heyday of the civil rights movement, The Help strives to tell a great story confronting some serious issues while still keeping you smiling and involved with its character’s lives. Even if you wanted to complain about the film being too melodramatic or cute those complaints are washed away by powerful and compelling performances from a cast of actors whose names we will surely be hearing when Oscar time swings around. Especially powerful is Viola Davis’s performance and Bryce Dallas Howard’s evil, yet subtly deep, antagonist. The final confrontation between the two of them is worth the price of admission alone.