Now that "The Help" is on its way to box office gold and Academy Award recognition, the debate around the film's racial politics is heating up, with strong defenders and critics lining up. In the wake of a number of attacks against the film, including my own, the Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman recently posted a vigorous and thorough defense, joining a chorus of journalists and critics (Stephen Farber in the L.A. Times) who are backlashing against the backlash.
What seems to be emerging here is a conflict between those who applaud "middlebrow" films that take on social issues, thereby raising some certain level of consciousness in their viewers and making them think vs. those who want a more hard-hitting, thought-provoking cinema that challenges the audience.
In some ways, the debate seems to transcend the film's actual style and content all together and simply reflect an opinion about the purpose of movies. How much should films simply be entertainments, and how much should they be art?
I can disparage "The Help" because I think it's more lazy and breezy than most of the films I enjoy. And an important film about the racial injustices of the civil rights era shouldn't be breezy. But as one commenter on my previous post wrote to me, "A movie built to Kaufman’s political standards would be grim and inaccessible to audiences." Well, maybe it would be grim and inaccessible to mainstream audiences, but as a matter of personal taste and political responsibility, I'd take that movie version of America's history of racial conflict over the glossy tales of reconciliation that Hollywood cranks out.
While many are comparing "The Help" to "The Blind Side," I can't but recall another film that spurred similar debates about movies, race and the virtues of social-conscious cinema, Paul Haggis' "Crash."
I detested "Crash"--and covered the critical divide over the film--and while I think "Crash" presented itself as a more edgy "indie" film, I think the reactions are similar to "The Help": with many people praising the film for raising important racial issues.
Like "Crash," "The Help" ultimately lets the audience off the hook, with Hollywood-style formulaic resolutions trumping real-life complexities. As even "Crash" fan Roger Ebert wrote in his review of "The Help," ""The Help" is a safe film about a volatile subject."