The Help (2011)

The Help (2011) – Film trailers are problematic. Sometimes they seriously undersell a movie. I thought Fight Club looked asinine but it was amazing. Sometimes the trailers are put together better than the movie itself. Look up the trailer for the bizarre clusterfuck Southland Tales and tell me it doesn’t look awesome? Sometimes the trailer tries to sell you on a different type of tone. Beginners was advertised as a comedy. It wasn’t (though it has moments of great wit). From the trailers, The Help looked like a movie I had no interest in seeing. It seems any story about non-white people needs a white person to center it to be commercially viable in America. We have movies about samurais starring Tom Cruise, movies about Native Americans starring Daniel Day-Lewis or Kevin Costner, or about the Rape of Nanking starring the god damn Batman (I believe every Christian Bale role is Bruce Wayne in disguise. It adds whole new layers to American Psycho). Civil Rights movies tend to be about Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe (Mississippi Burning) or Alec Baldwin (Ghosts of Mississippi… shit why did anyone ever live in Mississippi?) as opposed to, you know, black people. The trailer for The Help clearly was the story of how a privileged white girl (Emma Stone) liberated the African American wage slaves of the South…

The film got a bunch of Oscar nominations and while that doesn’t necessarily mean quality (how the hell is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close nominated?!?) I am one of those people who tries to see all of the movie before the ceremony. In the 21st century there are only three Best Picture nominees I haven’t seen (Chocolat, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and The Reader, if you’re curious). Still, Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture in a year when Do the Right Thing didn’t even get nominated so the Academy’s view of race relations may not be the most progressive… (though it was been 23 years so maybe they’ve gotten better). I know I’ve already written over 300 words without getting into the actual substance of the film but I really just want to paint a clear picture of my thought process going into this movie.

As it is, I rather liked it. That Viola Davis is excellent in one of the lead roles is no surprise. This is the woman who turned less than ten minutes of screen time into a well-deserved Oscar nomination in Doubt. What surprised me more was that the cast was pretty excellent all-around. Ms. 2011 Jessica Chastain (also in The Tree of Life, The Debt, Coriolanus, and Take Shelter this past year) has a great supporting role as a naïve housewife trying her best to be the perfect wife to her new husband (Mike Vogel). Octavia Spencer, who I had never really heard of but recognized her from a small part in Halloween II, is widely considered the front-runner to win the Oscar. Bryce Dallas Howard plays the bitchiest bitch is all of bitchdom (didn’t think she’d ever out-bitch her role in 50/50 where she cheats on a guy who has cancer) and is oddly terrifying in the role commanding her army of like-minded Aryans (Ahna O’Reilly and True Blood/Mad Men’s Anna Camp). Veteran actresses such as Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, and especially Cicely Tyson shine in smaller supporting roles. Chris Lowell from Veronica Mars puts a decent spin on the whole “first they hate each other then they love each other” romantic interest. Then of course there’s Emma Stone, the one who’s presence I took as some sort of harbinger of the film’s condescending racial politics. I’m really not sure why the hell I thought that. I like Emma Stone. I find her generally to be a charming and pleasant (and easy on the eyes) presence in any movie she’s in. No exception here. Yes, the rich white girl is the main character of the Civil Rights movie but actually watching the movie that doesn’t seem anywhere near as condescending as it sounds just saying it…

The film addresses racism in a way that makes you want to bang your head against a table to think how barbarous our society was so recently. “Racism is bad” is a fairly easy sentiment to express generally, because just about any depiction of it is clear in its awfulness. What The Help does is really emphasize how the important people in your life can’t be acknowledged. The film is also very good about not pretending that the book Stone writes solves everyone’s problems. Without spoiling the ending, things do not just majestically march forward into more enlightened times. Bad shit still happens (mostly personified by an evil redhead). What I objected to in the trailer is the idea that “white girl writes a book” was somehow the answer to the problem of racism in the South. The Help is a movie that acknowledges there are no easy answers. Maybe the Best Picture nomination is pushing it, but The Help is a movie worth checking out. It proved to me that films need to be judged on their content and not just their trailers.

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