The Help (2011)

Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek, Aunjanue Ellis, Mary Steenburgen

Directed by Tate Taylor

Expectations: Low. I’m watching this only because I loved Jessica Chastain’s work in Take Shelter.

The Help is a film I had no interest in seeing upon release. As soon as I heard it was set in the 1960s South and revolved around “the colored help” I went into a tirade about how Hollywood loves to make movies about the serving black person. This one’s supposed to be OK because it’s against the backdrop of civil rights and we’re supposed to get uplifted by the end, as things have gotten so much better for our characters. Pah-leese. But then I saw Take Shelter and immediately became intrigued to see Jessica Chastain work her acting magic in whatever she was in. My significant other was going to watch this one anyway, so I decided to stick around and see what all the fuss was about.

Turns out The Help is a pretty good mainstream movie, but one that still bothers me on a number of levels. It’s much too happy and seen through rose-colored glasses for me to fully embrace, but for what it is (a female-driven mainstream film), it’s serviceable. The acting from the entire cast is where the gold is though, as literally everyone turns in a great performance. It’s not a very artful film, but I won’t be surprised if it gets nominated for lots of Oscars just on the strength of the performances. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are especially great, but Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone also do a great job. Oddly enough, it was Jessica Chastain that I was least impressed with, but I think that’s more from having high expectations than any real problem with her performance. She is completely different here and definitely shows a great range between the three 2011 films I saw her in (The Help, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter).

I would love for this type of black service person film to go away and make room for films that involve deep, rewarding black characters that aren’t relegated to the hero’s friend or the villain’s sidekick, etc. I also have something of a problem with films like this always coming from the white perspective. I’d much rather see a black filmmaker take on the subject, as I feel then it might come from a more personal and artful place than something like this does. It reminds me of the situation in 1989 when Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture Oscar, despite being a far inferior race relations film to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (which wasn’t even nominated). The problem is that race relation movies told about whites helping black slaves or service people make white people feel good about their white guilt, while intense, challenging films like Do the Right Thing force people to look at the real issue and actually deal with the feelings that arise. More of that, please.

I don’t want to take away from Kathryn Stockett’s personal experience of being raised by a black maid that I’m sure she drew on in writing the book, but I can’t help but find this watered down and a lot less than it could have been. It’s also ridiculously long and could have easily been thirty minutes shorter, if not more. I did love the shit pie story though, but then, with a shit pie they’re going directly to my vengeful, just heart.

9 comments to The Help (2011)

  • Appalling, entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing, The Help is an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days. Good review Will.

  • I never had any intention of seeing this either, Will. I still don’t.

    But no doubt the wife will pick it up at the rental store and I’ll be made to sit and cuddle while we view it. I’ll let you know what I think!

  • Mrs. Jasper aka Legwarmers and Fannypacks

    It gives me great pleasure that you were able eloquently pen my thoughts. I too, decided never to see this film. I remember watching the trailer, with tears streaming down my face. It is irrelevant that I was also menstruating at that time. What really caused my tears is the injustice of films like this, still being made. We do not live in a non-racist society. Although times have gotten better, racial relations are still too sensitive to keep making films, such as The Help. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of seeing African Americans in movies that include improper English, racial slurs, and “jive talk”. How about a movie with some Black Love? Have we forgotten that Black people also fall in love? Get married? Raise children? It is also important to note that movies like The Help are introducing a new generation to racial slurs and inequalities that should be buried. The saddest part about this movie is the irony of it. It is set in the South in the 60’s, when racial tension was volatile. Here we are in 2012 and there are still blatant racist signs (and I mean actual signs on poles), and behavior in the South. This type of movie just pisses me off! Hollywood needs to stop focusing on civil wrongs and start making movies about civil rights!

    I’ve seen too many movies about racism, civil rights, baby mama drama, and “growing up in the hood”. I grew up in the Valley. There needs to be a broader representation of African Americans in film. Are movies about friendship, love so far fetched for Hollywood to digest?
    I’ll never forget what was fought for, but now I’m fighting for peace and joy.
    I would love to also bring up Viola Davis. She is one of the most gifted actresses today. She is eloquent, educated, and beautiful. Unfortunately she often plays uneducated roles such as Mrs. Miller in Doubt, Ellen in Madea goes to Jail, and Abilene in The Help.
    My challenge to everyone that saw The Help…go see a movie that includes a black love story such as Love and Basketball, Love Jones, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The Best Man, Mahogany, and Brown Sugar. There are not a plethora of choices but you’ll leave feeling sexy instead of sad!

    Loving the world,
    Mrs. Jasper aka Legwarmers and Fannypacks

    • Welcome, Mrs. Jasper! I totally agree with you. Film needs equality badly, but Hollywood is scared to put black people into prominent roles in prominent films because they fear that white audiences will stop going because they won’t have someone to relate to. But what about everyone else? Are we that close-minded as a film-going public that if someone doesn’t have the same skin color we zone out and can’t relate? That’s pure and utter bullshit and it gets my blood boiling that it’s still an issue in 2012. The climate in Hollywood is one of subliminal racism, where non-white children grow up watching entertainment where they rarely see positive representations of themselves, thus continuing to seed the foundations of an unequal society.

      Around the time this first came out and my rage was at its height, I read an article in Jet magazine that basically said “Yes, it’s bullshit that we’re still seeing this kind of movie, but you should go see it anyway to send a message to Hollywood that big releases with multiple, prominent black characters can succeed.” The logic here makes sense, and I’d like to believe that The Help’s success will result in real equality in film, but I can’t help but think that it’s a backward way to change. Can’t the rallying cry be around a positive film?

      And yes, Viola Davis is awesome. As is Octavia Spencer. They should both be huge stars with their talent.

      If you haven’t seen it, you should totally watch Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. It deals with all of these issues really well and is unfortunately just as relevant now as it was when it was made in 1987.

      I like your idea of watching a black love story and I may just have to take you up on that. Thanks for a great comment! It is much appreciated.

  • Yet another 2011 flick that I missed…stupid uni work. I’m pretty sure we gave a copy of this DVD to my grandma, it’s the type of film she likes! Like you say, even the trailers made the film look too…rosy. I’ll try and check it out soon I think, it’s getting more awards coverage than I think anyone really expected.

  • […] Will over at Silver Emulsions had reservations: “Turns out The Help is a pretty good mainstream movie, but one that still bothers me on a numb… […]

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