Talking about The Help is going to be complicated

Let’s start with just talking about The Help as a movie. It translated well to screen, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular book by writer/direcotr Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People). I wasn’t a huge fan of the book—not only did it not live up to the hype but I found it kind of offensive—but the movie was a more enjoyable experience to me. This story definitely worked better with the benefit of a top-notch cast. Like X-Men: First Class before it, The Help is a study in how good actors can elevate mediocre material. The Help is about twenty minutes too long and parts of it drag, giving it some awkward pacing issues. The movie worked better and was more interesting when it focused on the home lives of Aibilene (Viola Davis, Doubt, in a performance sure to be in the mix come Oscar season) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer, Peep World, in a breakout role). I could’ve used more Aibilene and Minnie at home and less Skeeter going on dates.

Speaking of Skeeter, Emma Stone delivers a solid if not mind-blowing performance as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the young journalist who begins compiling the stories of black maids in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. Stone shows she can capably handle a weighty role like this, but it isn’t a chameleonic performance. That’s definitely still Emma Stone, but she’s effective and likeable as Skeeter. All around, the acting in The Help is really, really good. Besides Davis, Spencer and Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Allison Janney (The West Wing), Sissy Spacek and Ahna O’Reilly (most famous for being James Franco’s ex) fill out the ensemble. Chastain is particularly good as Celia Foote, a tacky trophy wife. She hires Minnie after Hilly Holbrook (Howard), queen of the Junior League, has blacklisted her from the homes of Jackson. Celia and Minnie develop an interesting relationship, more friendly than Minnie is comfortable with, and their plotline pays off in a moving scene when Celia suffers a miscarriage. Everything that worked in The Help worked because of these actresses delivering strong performances. I didn’t dislike The Help and that’s solely down to the quality of the acting.

Still, The Help has some problems, and they’re all carry-overs from the book. The racial politics at play are troubling at best. Here’s what bugs me about The Help: The segregated South and the Civil Rights Era are incredibly complicated histories which have no neat and tidy ending. So what does it mean that The Help attempts to resolve those things with a neat and tidy ending? I don’t begrudge Stockett and Taylor wanting to tell an uplifting story—and The Help as a movie can be taken as an uplifting story—but I wonder about telling THIS story in THAT way. To me, it feels like trying to solve a couple hundred years of racial tension in two hours, which is cheap and not possible. It’s like—look at Skeeter, she’s so well-meaning she’s going to help these poor black women better themselves! And the maids are going to pass their down-home wisdom on to their clueless white employers! And everyone is better off! And we’re all friends now! If you simply don’t ask yourself any questions, if you just watch the movie and don’t second-guess anyone’s intentions, The Help will make you feel good. It is a positive message. There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself.

But is there something wrong with NOT asking those questions? Because what does The Help tell us really? That it takes a privileged white woman to effect change. It’s a gross over-simplification of an incredibly complex subject, and it’s offensive to take agency away from the African-American characters like that. If you’re capable of shutting off that part of your brain, enjoy, but I couldn’t and I felt the movie suffered for it. I was borderline uncomfortable throughout because of the representation of these characters. Again, the actresses do a helluva job overcoming this, but they can’t quite clear the hurdle. Hilly is so awful, such a caricature, that of course no one in the audience is going to identify with her. The thing that makes this history so complex is that all this awful stuff was carried out by normal people. Of course there are Hillys in the world. There are people who are “mean for sport”, as one character calls it. But the reason Jim Crow was allowed to continue as long as it did is because a lot of otherwise nice people simply did nothing. This was institutional racism that pervaded generations. My granny was a wonderful woman and I loved her very much but she had some ideas I could not reconcile. Born in 1914, raised in rural Texas—you can imagine what she thought about certain subjects. She wasn’t a bad person but she was fundamentally wrong. It’s the dark blot on the Greatest Generation. They were just. Plain. Wrong.

So The Help’s cotton-candy approach to this is to suggest that all this bad stuff came from villainous cartoons like Hilly when really, it was normal people like my Granny. It was EVERYONE. It was an endemic cancer and no one escaped it. I give The Help some credit for trying to create more agency for the black maids (they really emphasize that without the maid’s cooperation Skeeter can’t write her book), but they don’t go far enough. There are moments where you see the ongoing nature of the strife, especially at the end when Aibilene is fired and must leave her young white charge, Mae Mobley. The child is genuinely upset—Aibilene is more her mother than her actual mother, which is the same circumstance we see with Skeeter and her one-time nanny/maid. But we also see that Mae Mobley’s mother, Elizabeth (O’Reilly), is coming to realize she is going to have to raise her own children and that her treatment of Aibilene hasn’t been right. I’m not sure that moment would ever really come for a real-world Elizabeth. She’s my Granny—she never changed her mind. She just stopped sharing her opinions out loud because she knew it wasn’t acceptable anymore.

The Help wants us to feel good. It wants us to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come. But I’m not sure we should feel good and I don’t know that we have actually come that far. This history can’t be whitewashed. This isn’t a story I’m sure deserves a happy ending. I appreciate what The Help tries to do—reconcile a difficult and contentious history—but the simple approach doesn’t seem like the right one. Where this irked me the most—disappointed me the most—was in the resolution of Minnie’s story. She’s been teaching Celia to cook and in the end, Celia cooks Minnie an elaborate meal and serves it to her in the dining room, a room Minnie has refused to eat in, feeling it’s not “right”. And just as I know there are people as awful as Hilly in the world, I know there are people as good as Celia, but this is just so…pat. It’s such a nice, tidy bow for the movie. Look, the black servant and white employers are genuinely friends! To me, the better, more honest ending would be to show that Celia has learned to cook but she keeps Minnie on as her maid, because everyone knows no one else will hire Minnie at this point. Everyone sitting at the table together feels fake, but continuing to employ help you don’t really need because it’s the right thing to do? That feels more real.

It’s a complicated movie, despite a serious effort at not being so. It’s worth seeing for the acting alone—Davis and Spencer are outstanding—but we should be asking ourselves the difficult questions the movie tries so hard to avoid. We shouldn’t let The Help, or ourselves, off the hook just because we want to feel good about this now. There is no feeling good about this. This past will always exist. It will always be ugly. We can only move forward and try to be better.

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13 thoughts on “Talking about The Help is going to be complicated

  1. Teresa

    Well done Sarah. This is a good review that remains honest about the flaws of the book and how they carry over into the film.

    I read The Help and enjoyed it. Being a lazy creature, I didn’t analyze the flaws, I simply fell in love with the characters. Now having had some time away from Aibeleen, Minnie & Skeeter, I do see how it is pretty insulting to write a Disney ending to a story with such a serious subject as its core.

    I will probably see the film and will probably like it, mainly because I really did love the characters in the book. I’m glad the acting did them justice.

    I wonder how this film will do with an international audience. They seem more tolerant of “untidy” endings. Would be cool if an alternate ending was available with a more realistic outcome.

    Off topic, but it reminds me of the insults hurled at American audiences when Joe Wright included the mushy alternative ending to Pride & Prejudice for the US version (that we needed coddling & reassurance that everything would be ok, etc) They were right, because I happened to love that cheesy ending and so do a lot of educated Austin fans I know.

  2. Veronica

    Sarah,

    I saw The Help yesterday and totally agree with your synopsis. While it was packaged nicedly at the end, it didn’t correctly address the end of racism in the South. Especially considering there are many places in that location where race is still a major issue.

    My question, however, revolves around its weekend projections. While many are projecting it to be a big winner, how does its Wednesday opening affect the viability of those numbers? Did the studio plan the Wednesday opening solely on hoping for larger opening numbers? And, on that note, are the numbers adjusted in any way against those films that opened at midnight Thursday to “true up” against those. My point being, the line for 30 Minutes or Less (which I’m also planning on seeing this weekend) was ridiculous last night.

    It doesn’t seem like the opening weekend numbers for “The Help” will actually reflect its true opening weekend when, in fact, in opened a full day before its competition.

    1. Well, I don’t like Wednesday openings because it’s a money grab. The only Wednesdays a movie should be opening on are the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Wednesday before Christmas, if Christmas falls on a Thursday. Other than that, there’s no real reason for a Wednesday opening except the cashy money.

      That said, there will be two numbers for The Help: 1) The 3 day weekend (Friday-Sunday) and 2) the 5 day weekend (Wednesday-Sunday). But this is exactly why The Numbers don’t mean anything. Because you can manipulate these figures to mean whatever you want.

      1. Veronica

        Follow up question…

        If this Wednesday opening results in a huge win for “The Help”, will this impact opening days for films in the future? I.e. Will there be a future shift towards studios pushing out movies faster than the standard Midnight Thursday/Friday openings?

  3. Stephany

    I wonder if the kathryn stockett fans are going to start a new flame war on this post. Those crazy Ape fans going off on you was the funniest shit that happen on this site. You should not have dignified their fuckery with a response. You should have sat back, laughed, and been happy for the increased page views.

  4. anaishilator

    Eh, as an afro american woman…I think I’ll pass. Not that I dont like movies that explore racial and cultural issues, but..watching the trailer , I felt uneasy. And as I hear more and more about the source material, those feelings of unease seem to be a correct intuition.

    I just…Im probably not going to explain this as coherently as I should but, this book and subsequent flick seem to have elements of storytelling like in the film Avatar.

    I refuse to see Avatar.

    I found Avatar offensive because special effects wizardry aside, it was a pretty aggressive display of storytelling at its most basic and lazy. Basically, Avatar is the story of Mighty Whitey(TM Tv Tropes) who after spending ten mintues with the Noble Savage Na’avi becomes a master of their lifestyle and culture, and fully “assimilates” all while still retaining the ability at any time to go back to being human. And not only does he become the bestest warriar of all time, he gets the Chief’s Daughter to boot. Its just….sigh. The social and racial implications of these stories are always dubious at best.

    So, the unease I felt upon seeing a trailer for The Help is feeling like…here we have well meaning Mighty Whitey who wants to tell the stories of these Magical Negro maids and singlehandedly cure racism in the south. I just…felt unease.

    So, while I am sure the book and the film are well meaning and not offensive in anyway, its the subtext and conclusions from those types of movies I find a bit unsettling.

    1. Jane

      Yup. Exactly. I didn’t read the book, but I’m wondering how the author integrated Aibileen’s writing into the story, and if the filmmakers could have done more to explain why she didn’t just record and publish her own experiences. I cringed every time I saw the camera focus on Skeeter’s half page of scattered notes and wondered just what was being lost in the paraphrase. Why weren’t we given an explanation (even a brief one) of why Skeeter needed to record their words – e.g., to preserve anonymity, ensure uniformity of voice, etc.? By contrast, Skeeter never acknowledges or offers encouragement of any kind for Aibileen’s writing. Despite the fact that we’re told at the end of the film that this is Aibileen’s great calling? You see the disconnect here. There’s a huge disconnect.

      As a side note: I saw this with a family friend who grew up with a black nanny in a conservative Texas town in the 1950s. Texas isn’t the Deep South, but I found it interesting that he too recognized that the film glossed over some of the complexities of the time by including a stock character like Hilly. The braver choice would have been in showing the racial bias in an otherwise admirable character. That’s a more insidious character, and closer to the truth.

  5. anaishilator

    I mean, I could buy this movie if they had a scene where the maids sit around and talk shit about these “crazy crackers” they have to work for and how they cant stand the children they have to take care of. Or even if there was a scene where a husband maybe flirts inappropriiately with one of the colored maids. Or maybe if there was conflict between those maids fully tied in with the system..a “mammie” if you will and maybe a younger more rebellious maid who does what she has to do, but isnt completely subserviant in spirit. Now those things I could buy. But ….as described, it doesnt seem, like this is what the book and movie is about and that just bothers me to no end.

  6. Ana

    Hey Sarah,
    I went to see this movie with my white boyfriend and my white best friend. I’m Spanish. I have to say that The Help ended up depressing all 3 of us. There were some really tough scenes to watch, and it made my boyfriend feel really uncomfortable. I’m not sure how this is supposed to be an uplifting movie. The ending with Minnie disturbed my bf (for the reasons you mentioned), and he didn’t feel optimistic about Aibilean’s future, not matter her hints about future writing. Regardless, I enjoyed this movie for the acting and the story. It felt sincere, and made me think of the same conflicting feelings I have towards the maids my family employs in South America.

  7. Monica

    The movie is far, far better than the trailer which was blatantly offensive and made The Help seem like it would be nothing more than a chick flick set in the early 1960s. Having said that, what I think would have been a nice addition would have been some sentences flashing on the screen as Aibilene walks away down the street so that there was some historical context. Just some pertinent facts about the civil rights movement starting in the 60s culminating with the election of Barak Obama and the birth of the Tea Party. I think that would have brought home the point that the fight continues.

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