It opened in the USA on this day, August 10, 2011. Aware of this beforehand, I re-watched “The Help” over the weekend – the first time since I first saw it in 2011 – if only to find out whether my reactions to it would be any different, 5 years later, with much distance now between myself and the film, having not really given it any thought since then. It was such a contentious film at the time of its release, as I recall, and I wonder how much more controversial it would be if it were made today.
I felt numb after seeing “The Help” the first time, likely a result of the 12 months before its release, of what was often rigorous debate about the then upcoming film, its content, the alleged agenda of those who produced it, the actresses who chose to star in it and their reasons for doing so (although, quite frankly, I was one of those who didn’t feel that they needed to defend their taking the roles; its work), the motivations of the author of the novel the film is based on, and much more. Not just on this website; across the web, as well as offline and on TV. And, as it’s in my job description to ensure that I’m kept abreast of conversations that matter, escaping the noise really wasn’t, and still isn’t an option for me. So, I summarized my lack of any immediate strong reactions to the film (whether endearment or repulsion) to fatigue – intellectual and emotional; but not from actually watching the movie, despite its almost 2 ½ hour length. The numbness likely already existed before I walked into the screening room that day in 2011 when I first saw the film.
Alas, watching it for really only the second time since its initial release, I don’t feel much different than I did 5 years ago.
But it could quite possibly be that the 5-year distance may actually be a good thing in this case, because it allows for a more clinical critique of the film. Not that I’m completely detached from the experience, but yes, I still feel the same way about it as I did immediately after I saw it, as in, not much, making it easier to dismiss the film, given just how shallow it is. Although I’d say that I really don’t think the producers of the film were particularly interested in making something momentous or transgressive. I believe they call it “entertainment.”
This isn’t Ousmane Sembene’s seminal 1966 film “Black Girl” (“La Noire de…”) – a film that centered on a character in a somewhat similar predicament as those played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in “The Help,” but with a far richer, complex, interior life. That film is really all about her interior life. “The Help” unfortunately is not.
In seeing the film again, as was the case when I read the book, I didn’t expect some revolutionary text, knowing what I knew about the author, what I’d heard about the book, and given past stories about the experiences of black people, told from a non-black person’s POV.
But for a book of its nature and origins, I appreciated the author’s attempts to actually give these characters (the black maids specifically) their own individual lives. They may not be fully realized characters, but they aren’t what I’d call 2-dimensional cardboard cut-outs either, or just background fodder.
As an aside, I will also add that the depiction of the class/race struggle on screen is most often framed as one that exists almost solely between men; rarely is that tale reflected from the perspective of women protagonists/antagonists. So this was a welcomed jolt of estrogen.
It’s just unfortunate that it comes in this particularly blithe package, especially when one considers the dearth of films in cinema history that have closely examined the tenuously symbiotic, if strained relationship between black maids and their white employers (particularly those told from the maid’s POV), which goes back centuries and crosses borders.
Despite the subject matter and the unsettled perilous period in which “The Help” takes place, the “Pleasantville”-like atmosphere the characters exist in, is devoid of any real tension, painting a picture that’s far less damning than it needs to be, and thus incomplete, in order to feel authentic. It just doesn’t dig deep enough. It’s as if the filmmakers were willing to go only so far with the ugliness and the, dare I say, realness of the period and the relationships. I’m not sure if it was intentional, in that the goal was to produce something with commercial/crossover value (it was based on a New York Times bestseller after all), or if they were just oblivious. But it’s far too *safe* given the story it wants to tell and the era in which it lives.
In the film, it’s common for moments of gravity to be quickly countered with comedy.
And while it’s a film that takes place during the late 50s to late 60s Civil Rights years, it largely avoids the movement itself, considering that the southern region in which the film takes place was in the thick of it. But as I already noted, “The Help” isn’t interested in that story; it’s just not that kind of movie. You have to decide whether it’s your kind of movie.
An interesting item here is that the antagonists in the story (the sorority of middle, to upper class whites) are actually thinly drawn, compared to the protagonists (the black maids, the ones we’re supposed to feel sympathy for, and the single white heroine of the story depicted by Emma Stone).
The villain of the story, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (whom I actually feel was miscast in the role) is so ridiculously 2-dimensional. You’re supposed to hate her; you really have no choice but to; there isn’t an ounce of good in this woman, and her lack of depth and complexity makes her so absurd that it negates any real dread or disgust one is supposed to feel whenever she’s on screen. You may actually laugh at her instead, making the character easy to dismiss. And once that happens with a story’s main antagonist, how is the rest of the film supposed to keep an audience engaged? Part of the thrill in movies like this in which good and bad are so clearly defined is the eventual showdown one expects will come at some point in the film, usually towards the end, during which the bad gets their comeuppance. And once that thrill is gone, it becomes a matter of waiting until the film reaches its denouement. Boredom sets in; Boredom that might lead to apathy.
And, in way, that’s one of the unfortunate things about all this; that the author of the novel, Kathryn Stockett, seemed to really want to paint a *positive* image of the black maids, making a clear distinction between them and their *evil* white employers (except for the one rebel – the writer with big city dreams; the artist; because, as we all know, being a creative means you’re likely more free-spirited, open, aware and tolerant of diversity than others). Stockett wants us to commiserate with the black maids, giving them as much (if not more) exposure as their white employers, showing the duality of the lives they live in the homes of their employers, and with their own families.
But it’s all-too neatly-packed into this rather bland tale set in America’s turbulent, racially-charged past (which you never truly feel the weight and essence of), told specifically from a white person’s perspective.
I honestly don’t believe that white women who see the film, and who happen to have black maids at home will suddenly feel like they have any real insight into the minds and lives of the women who take care of their children, cook their meals and clean their houses.
In the film, the harshest and most earnest of the employer-to-maid stories were relegated to written or verbal recollections by the maids during their interviews with our heroine, Skeeter Phelan, played well enough by Emma Stone. So we hear about them, but don’t actually get to see these moments play out on screen, which would have been far more affecting I think than listening to snips of memoirs.
And I just couldn’t ignore the fact that, given the tumultuous, violent era in which the film takes place, especially if you were black, the only scene of violence that exists in the film is between a black man and a black woman. Specifically, the character Octavia Spencer plays is married to an abusive husband – though we never get to actually see this husband in the flesh. He’s just a voice – an angry voice that strikes fear in his wife, who we do see, as she cowers in fear against a wall, on his approach towards her, after bursting through the door leading into their home, and then beats her, as we hear her cries, and later, see her badly bruised eye. It all seemed completely unnecessary. I understand the sequence was supposed to act as motivation for other action that would follow, but it really wouldn’t have made much difference at all if the abusive husband wasn’t in the story. It’s just a lazy plot device. The motivation was all already there, and I’d question Stockett’s decision to write this character and the scene into the story.
The only other substantial black male presence in this is David Oyelowo’s pastor. And he’s barely on screen, in a church scene, doing what pastors usually do.
About halfway through the film, we learn that Medgar Evers is shot and killed; his death, and its effects on those who cherished him, is handled rather unceremoniously and quickly. I found myself asking what the point was in even including it. Yet another ill-conceived plot device that exists strictly to help push the story forward.
On the other side of the aisle, there are a few white men in this, who are, by comparison, mostly pleasant and even compassionate actually, though they are mostly relegated to the periphery.
This is a film that many praised for its performances above all else, and it did represent the best possibility of an Oscar nomination for black actors/actresses that year (Octavia Spencer).
At the end of the film, our shero, Skeeter Phelan, gets to leave the small Mississippi town she’s created havoc in with her book, as she heads to the bright lights of New York City to follow her dreams of becoming a professional writer. She gets to leave, while the black maids gladly support her decision to do so. I can imagine the conversation that wasn’t shown… “Go,” they would’ve said, “we’ll deal with all the fallout from our little experiment, because that’s just what we do, and we don’t have any other choice but to stay; some of us are in prison; some have lost our jobs; some will forever be blacklisted; but it doesn’t matter; we don’t mind sacrificing ourselves for your happiness White Woman, because that’s just what we do. That’s all we can do. You come back and visit us some time now, hear? We’ll still be here… hopefully…”