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The Help (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

The Help

THE HELP (2011)

Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek, Chris Lowell, Mary Steenburgen, Anna Camp, Aunjanue Ellis, Ted Welch, David Oyelowo, Brian Kerwin, Wes Chatham, Shane McRae, Ashley Johnson, Emma Henry, Eleanor Henry, Dana Ivey and Leslie Jordan.

Screenplay by Tate Taylor.

Directed by Tate Taylor.

Distributed by Dreamworks Pictures.  137 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

With The Help, Hollywood continues down an odd trail that they have been following for decades now – exploring the horrors of black oppression as seen through the eyes of a white person.  They have done it with the stories of Nelson Mandela (Invictus), Stephen Biko (Cry Freedom) and Medgar Evers (Ghosts of Mississippi) and quite a few others over the years.  Only rarely are we allowed to see it from the perspective of the person who is actually standing up for the change – Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is one of those rare exceptions.

However, now we are right back where we started from, with a nice white lady helping to destroy Jim Crow bigotry in the South of the 1960s.  And the help of the title – the working-class maids who were treated as second-class citizens by their bigoted bosses – turn out to merely be the help in their own personal salvation.  Black southern maids may still be in this horrible predicament, The Help suggests, if a nice and radically open-minded (at least for the South in the 60s) white woman had not come along and exposed their pain to the world.

Is it nobler to bring suffering to light or to endure the suffering?  That’s a complicated question, and sadly one that The Help is a little too light-weight to take on directly.  Fifty years later pretty much everyone agrees that the lifestyles shown in The Help were completely wrong – and the few people who don’t believe that would never actually go to see a movie like The Help – so it sort of makes you wonder what audience The Help is supposed to be made for.  The movie is making an argument that everyone who sees it is already going to be on board with.  It’s easy to take a stand that very few people are likely to oppose, but that seems to be the polar opposite of the bravery this story is supposed to be celebrating.

The storyline does seem to be one that is rife with dramatic tension.  In the middle of the Jim Crow south, a young writer (Emma Stone) returns home and sees how poorly all the maids are treated.  Not bigoted, she decides that she would like to get their stories – about their work, their lives, their bosses.  It would make a wonderful book; she feels – something which has never been exposed before.  She tries to talk to some of the maids, but realizing how much trouble they could get into, they refuse.  Finally, one brave maid (Viola Davis) reluctantly agrees to talk.  Eventually, as injustices rage around them, more of the maids sign on to discuss their feelings about the lives they are forced to live.

I do feel bad about not really enjoying (or at least respecting) The Help as much as its subject matter should inspire.  Yes, the film obviously has its heart in the right place.  And yes, it is exploring some great injustices.  There is some wonderful talent putting this story across – any film that has a cast with such fine actresses as Stone, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Cecily Tyson, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen and Allison Janney has to have some real merit.  Beyond that, perhaps the finest performance comes from a relatively unknown actress, Octavia Spencer, as a veteran maid who has finally had been pushed too far.  However, honestly, the film is a bit too cartoonish and feel-good to be taken seriously as a social statement.  And the film is a little too smug about its own importance to be taken seriously as movie entertainment.

Yes, The Help is just fine at pushing buttons and often it does work at its intended mission to choke you up… but it seems like this horrible moment in very recent history deserves a less calculated and more sincere exploration.  The movie appears to be trying to fit a very messy social problem into a neat Hollywood package.

Which leaves The Help in a weird netherworld: it’s a pretty good film that loses power rather than gains it because its subject matter is just so vital.  This story is so important that it is hard to think that a better film couldn’t be made on the topic.  Therefore, whatever craft and positive attributes The Help does have – and they are quite definitely there – seem squandered.

For example, the main villain here, the queen bee of the Jackson, Mississippi social scene, Hilly Holbrook (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) is so irretrievably awful a person that the script seems to be stacking the deck.  It is a deck that does not need to be stacked.  Couldn’t the film have given her some nuance, some shading or some heart?

Howard does her best with the role, but her character is so vile and so strident that she becomes one-dimensional.  Perhaps there were even women like Hilly in 1960s Mississippi – in fact, no doubt there were – but strictly as a movie, this does not work in a dramatic context.  Every character, no matter how wrongheaded they may be, has to have some positive traits.  If not, they may as well be a robot.  Hilly never once seems like a real person – and the movie suffers for that.  The script is showing the very same lack of compassion that it accuses Hilly of doing.  A very brief shot of Hilly apparently crying after being told off by a former maid does not go nearly far enough to redeem this irredeemable character.

Other plot developments feel just as calculated – like a little white toddler cutely telling her black nanny, “You’re my real mommy,” a practical joke revolving around commodes and an out-of-character and frankly kind of gross scene which revolves around a chocolate pie.  There is also a romantic subplot for the heroine that feels undercooked and completely unnecessary.  We never really see what she sees in him – in fact, he is portrayed as kind of a jerk – yet suddenly they are together, with no explanation or context.  The whole tangent is only there for the guy to flip out on her when he finds out about fact that she has written a book exposing the point of view of maids.

Is it fair to berate The Help because it is fairly good, but not as good as its subject matter deserves?  Perhaps not, but that was my gut reaction to it.  Yes, it was rather absorbing.  Yes, I did get very caught up in the lives of these characters.  I just wish their story had not been told in such a by-the-book method.  This story is gripping enough that it does not need to take a Screenwriting 101 approach.  The real characters that inspired this film painted outside the lines.  The filmmakers who were honoring them should have, too.

Dave Strohler

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: November 24, 2011.


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