The Help

Are We Sure America’s Come A Long Way?

Any time Hollywood makes a movie about the civil rights movement or things that happened in the Mississippi in the 50’s and 60s, you know you’re getting a snow job. No matter how badly they portray the way things were, you know it had to be worse. Over the years I’ve come to see these films with more and more scepticism, for it is obvious to the outside viewer that they are partly to assuage white guilt and partly to pretend things have moved on by making a period picture.

And really, by dint of time rolling on, the 1960s is more or less a historic epoch of the mid last century, more than it is a connected cultural terrain. And therein lies the deceptive shift that by couching these things in the past, the audience can pretend the conflict is over and done.

Anyway, when I sat down to watch ‘The Help’, it gave me nothing but dread for the onslaught of political correctness hypocrisy and a dose of revisionism. You see, I have my own prejudices about movies about racial prejudice.

What’s Good About It

Viola David and Octavia Spencer turn in great performances in this film. Viola David had that standout scene in ‘Doubt’ when she played a tough scene opposite Meryl Streep.Octavia Spencer of course won a best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role and it is a very deserving accolade for the performance she turned in. Emma Stone (who was in ‘Superbad’ as the vague love interest only a few years ago) turns in a surprisingly full performance as well. The directing is pretty ordinary for camera but the work with actors is obviously good.

it’s solid work that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel – but then how could you be that kind of director with this kind of material? It was hardly going to be Tree of Life.

What’s Bad About It

I can’t tell who the main character is supposed to be, and so I can’t tell which is the main conflict. Is Abilene the main character because she is the narrator? Or is it Skeeter who is doing the documenting. Similarly I’m not sure about the authorship of the fictional book in the fictional universe. When it says on the cover ‘Anonymous’, does it mean the author is left unsaid because the central conflict as to who owns the narrative is undecided even in the movie that surrounds it?

Because the film is bookended by Abilene’s narration, we are led to believe she believes she wrote the book. But what we’ve seen is Skeeter do all the writerly business of making notes, typing up the manuscript, calling the publisher and seeing through the publication. By any stretch of the definition, Skeeter wrote that book and Abilene was the subject.

This confusion is a terrible thing because it means that the film tries to tell us the issue of ownership over the narrative is settled, when in fact the film itself shows it is dead opposite, it is left in confusion and ready to be contested. There’s no point in talking about black people getting emancipated and getting ownership of their lives through ownership of their narrative when the authorial voice is presenting it as otherwise.

What’s Interesting About it

All of the above leads me to wonder if the original author of ‘The Help’ has really untangled this mess herself. If I were a prying person, I’d imagine some of the stuff in this film has deep factual roots, right down to the shit-in-the -pie episode. In fact, the shit-in-the-pie episode essentially holds together the film as an essential truth of the South in Jackson Mississippi. Having denigrated and stomped all over the aspirations of black people after their emancipation, they live in abject fear of the comeuppance. The shit in the pie is more than just symbolic of the fear of retribution, it is the structure of their society.

The white people in this film’s universe have lost the ability to cook for themselves and raise their own children and have become totally dependent on their black maids. All the while they live in abject fear that the black people are spreading diseases and putting shit in their pies. Which, is essentially the thesis of this film and everything else that goes around it is an elaborate charade to pretend there is something more profound than the threat of the shit-in-the-pie.

There’s an old joke from the Wild West where a cowboy says to his Chinese servant, “Hey Chink, this soup is really good. You make me this soup every day and it’s always good. I’ve decided I’ll stop calling you ‘Chink’.”

His servant replies, “Thanks boss. I’ll stop peeing in your soup everyday too.”

And that’s your movie right there and there.

Isn’t This Film Worse Than A Cliche?

This is a ‘worthy’ film that comes along once in a while and browbeats people into saying it is good. but it has to be said, without such films, where else would Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer find such juicy roles?

Right now there’s debate in Australia as to whether the TV shows in this country are divers enough and many saying it is not. The producers argue it is because there aren’t enough good actors in the non-mainstream white groupings. It doesn’t occur to them this is chicken or the egg because if you weren’t white in Australia, what chance have you got as an actor? Why would you choose to be an actor unless you were totally driven by the craft? And if you do, you may never see the light of day.

A lot of this goes hand in hand with the very slow process of getting over the race issue. The truth is, nowhere on the planet is over race, because no group on the planet can get over itself. It’s a shame, but it is what it is. So I guess I should applaud the ‘worthy’ film, even though I am acutely aware of its  deep flaws and faults.

But really, this is a frustrating movie to watch.

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