There are very few people anymore who can claim authentic, first hand knowledge of the Civil Rights movement. In the same way that I wouldn’t pretend to possess any particular insight into the fall of the Berlin Wall, having been alive during the 60s doesn’t grant you special insight into the race struggle. The only people who can really say that they were a part of things weren’t just alive in the 60s, but were decision-making adults with the self-awareness to adopt a position on one side or the other, and their numbers are dwindling. Which must explain why The Help, a film that simplifies and exploits one of this country’s most strained periods, and does so with broad, stereotypical character types and exchanges, has been nominated for Best Picture. Or it could just be that Viola Davis can make anybody like anything.
In the early 1960s, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home from college, intent on starting a career as a journalist. Though her mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) is concerned only with Skeeter’s male prospects, and the Women’s Junior League, led by the rotten Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), seems thoroughly confounded by her, Skeeter remains devoted to becoming a legitimate writer. And it is the stories of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer)–two black house maids with a wealth of insight into the bigoted world of 1960s indentured servitude–that inspire her to take the plunge. In writing down their stories anonymously, Skeeter shakes things up in the small town of Jackson, MI, altering the status quo irreparably.
The author of The Help is named Kathryn Stockett. She is white, and she was born in 1969. Not to suggest that the Civil Rights movement had closed its doors prior to ’69, but I think it’s safe to say that the world depicted in the film is not the world Kathryn Stockett experienced as a child in the late 70s. In fairness, Stockett was more or less raised by a black woman, and lived at least some of her childhood in Jackson, MI, but that’s effectively where the similarities between her story and the one she fabricated end, as does any implication that Stockett had any true, first hand knowledge of the movement depicted in her book and film. This is not a small dilemma. The sort of characters Stockett feels comfortable drawing so broadly are, at best, endearingly simple, and at worst, sassy clichés. That’s not to say there isn’t truth in her characters, but that the truths have been distilled again and again until all that’s left is a caricature. Minny is probably the clearest example of this. When she’s not filling space as comic relief, she’s reminding the audience, once again, of the spectacularly disgusting act she, rightly or wrongly, committed. Meanwhile, she has 10+ kids at home, a husband who beats her, and loves fried chicken. Now obviously, there were enumerable black women in the 1960s that all these things could be true of, but they are, nonetheless, pretty lazy stereotypes, and Stockett’s eagerness to crowd them all together at once is hard to stomach.
There is a lot about The Help that’s hard to criticize, including a number of strong performances; Viola Davis in particular earned her nod, pulling an impressive amount of complexity out of a pretty simple character. And like a number of other films from 2011 that probably don’t deserve the caliber of acclaim that they’re getting, The Help is winningly sentimental, getting even me to feel something towards the end, despite being firmly frustrated by it throughout. It has no qualms about taking advantage of its audience, pitting a bunch of “good” characters against a few “bad” characters and, similar to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, drawing on the preexisting affectivity of a societally-ingrained trauma (i.e. pulling the race card). What is particularly frustrating about all this is that The Help, even overlooking the myriad issues present in its depictions of race relations, isn’t a very well-made movie. The direction from Tate Taylor, as well as the adapting, is sloppy and confusing. As just one example, an emotionally-devoid subplot involving Skeeter and a boy named Stuart (Chris Lowell) is disgracefully underdeveloped, along with going nowhere and ending abruptly. Sure, trying to cram everything from the book into the movie is a challenge, but there’s nothing here to suggest that Taylor wouldn’t have just as much trouble with a proper script.
I don’t want to call The Help a train wreck, because that’s inaccurate. A better way of putting it would be to say that The Help gets from A to B, but does so in an ugly old beater, with really bad directions. The good news is that it got Viola Davis to her destination–Oscar Night. There is an undeniable “it” quality present in Davis, and the more people who get to see it and appreciate it, the better. It is, however, a shame that the Academy can’t seem to make the distinction anymore between a great movie with good performances, and a ‘meh’ movie with great performances. A shame too that so many Academy voters are entranced by schmaltz. If the trend in film criticism and praise is to simply respond to what you feel, without analyzing the merits of that emotion and the journey you took to get there, then we’re headed down a dangerous cinematic road.