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Review - "The Help" (Well... It's Certainly Not "Black Girl;" Though It's Not Trying To be)

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act August 12, 2011 at 1:48AM

It opened on Wednesday, the 10th, though I suspect most interested in seeing it will be seeing it over the weekend. In light of that, and the spirited discussion that continues, I figured I'd re-post my review of it.
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It opened on Wednesday, the 10th, though I suspect most interested in seeing it will be seeing it over the weekend. In light of that, and the spirited discussion that continues, I figured I'd re-post my review of it.

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I’m tired.

At least, I think maybe that would help explain the numbness I felt after seeing The Help a week or two ago; tired from the 12 months of often rigorous debate about the 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, the motivations of the author of the novel the film is based on, and much more.

Not just on this website; across the web. 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.

But it could quite possibly be that my apathy 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, as there were a few scattered moments during the screening that actually elicited an immediate reaction from me; but overall, I just shrugged at it all.

And despite waiting for over a week to put my thoughts down, little changed. I still feel the same way about it as I did immediately after I saw it. Not much…

I think most of you probably expect to be enraged by the film, given your comments on it thus far – from the vehemently rebuffed depictions of black maids in Civil Rights era southern USA, in subservient roles to their racist white female employers, to the lament that this is yet another story supposedly about black people told by a Caucasian and from that POV, to the rejection of the black maids’ inability to collect and revolt, independent of the gentle encouraging hand of a white liberator, and more.

But for those who do end up seeing it, expecting to be incensed by it, you might actually find it easier to dismiss the film, given just how frivolous and 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, 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 lives and thoughts. 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.

However, I’m sure many will get exactly what they want from the experience of seeing it – entertainment; as long as you’re willing to overlook certain undesirable memes.

So you have to ask yourself what exactly you’re expecting to get out of the film, and go into it fully aware of those expectations; they just might be met.

I already mentioned just how innocuous The Help is, despite the subject matter and the unsettled perilous period in which it 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), or if they were just oblivious. But it severely lacks edge, and is far too safe given the story it wants to tell and the era in which it lives.

It was 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 white 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 counterparts, showing the duality of the lives they live in the homes of their employers, and in their own homes.

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.

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 occurrences, 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 – one that, as I already said, wasn’t necessary. 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 lazy, 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 have praised for its performances above all else, and, as I’ve said already, it represents what I believe will be the best possibility of an Oscar nomination for a black actor/actress this year, in Viola Davis and/or Octavia Spencer. And I won’t at all be surprised to see both of them nominated, and one of them walking away with the trophy in the Best Supporting Actress category – Viola Davis especially, since she’s the better-known of the two.

I can’t say that I won’t be happy for her if that were to happen; she does a decent job with the material she’s given; however, one thing that struck me about her performance was just how caged she seemed. By that I mean, she felt contained, like an explosion waiting to happen that just never quite does, because she isn’t allowed to. It’s just not that kind of role. For all her ability, Viola Davis isn’t meant to play subdued, subservient roles like this. Her presence demands she be out, front and center, bold, brash, dangerous and leading; not meek and cowering. She plays a similar kind of character here that she played in Doubt, which got her Academy Award attention for the first time, via a nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category. And I expect she’ll be blessed with the same honor next year, and may even win this time, whether we like it or not.

*Sigh*… that being more-so because, as I write this, I realize that I’m starting to feel something other than fatigue or numbness. I feel deflated. Here’s another studio picture – the 1 widely released black drama that we get annually that’s not a Tyler Perry product, that’s been, and will likely continue to be debated, dissected, chewed up, spit out, protested, etc. And I’m just really exhausted from all that.

I’m sometimes asked why I don’t participate much in the debates that often happen in the comments section on this site, and my answer is because, again, I’m fatigued from all the conversation. I’ve been doing this for about 4 years now (which doesn’t seem like a long time, though in Internet years it's a lifetime), and have been involved in almost every debate/discussion that we continue to have on this site about the lack of variety in portrayals, and representation behind the curtain; and, quite frankly, I’m all talked out!

I’m much more interested in doing what needs to be done to get us where we want to be. And until there’s some collective movement (not-so unlike Ava DuVernay’s AFFRM, but replicated on the production side) intent on shifting the conversation to action, the story just won’t change. Instead the same debates and discussions will continue to happen every year.

Without me though; like I said, I’m tired.

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, as our black maids gladly support her decision to do so. I can imagine the conversation that wasn't shown... “Go,” they say, “we’ll deal with all the fallout from our little experiment, because that’s just what we do, and we don’t seem to have much of 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, 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…

I’d say that its ending is maybe its most sincere moment, given how limited and shallow the rest of the film looks and feels.

Oh well… at least we have Django Unchained to look forward to in 2012, right? The black Basterd is coming… Oh, but wait a minute… nevermind.

It's just entertainment.

Now we wait patiently to read what Armond White has to say about it :)


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