Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Biting the Bullet and Watching "The Help"

I didn’t want to like this movie. From the minute I saw the previews in the theatre, I thought it was going to be a predictable tale of Black struggle where White people save the day and it’s done in a neat Hollywood way that glosses over it. I figured it was targeted for women and I had no interest in supporting a film that reminded me of “The Blind Side.”

So then why am I sitting here torn? Why do I feel like my preconceived notions were wrong because I (gulp!) actually thought “The Help” was good? Why do I want to still hate it but I can’t totally because it had good merit and I enjoyed it unlike "The Blind Side". Did I just type that?

Full disclosure, I vowed I wouldn’t support “The Help”. But after expressing my thoughts on Twitter and encountering some backlash, I needed to see it so I wouldn’t criticize in ignorance. I believe in seeing things for yourself so I took the plunge and studied myself and this film.

I liked how the story was told – with good humor (Minny’s revenge), yet seasoned with realness. I wanted to see how it ended up. I sympathized with Viola Davis’ character. I hated the racism in the movie and it riled me up. It reminded you of the bigger picture the brief mention of Medger Evers’ funeral and even briefer mention of The March on Washington

It had its weak moments too where it reminded me of a bizarro chick flick with the cattiness and unnecessary drama. It was distracting and while it may have showed the South from a female perspective and was historical fiction, to completely leave out the men altogether made it feel like I was watching it removed from total reality.

What can I say about Viola Davis, though. Her acting was masterful. She made you feel Aibileen’s pain with every step, every expression, every word. Her face wasn’t that of an actress, it was showing the pain of servants and Black women everywhere carrying a heavy burden. She should get the Oscar for her merit, without question. 

The movie praised the Black maids for not just their support, but their agency. It made them not just sympathetic but admirable. That was my worry. It gave them more credit than I expected.

(Let me explain that more. When you feel sorry for somebody, you don’t necessarily respect their full person all the time, just feel sorry for their situation. When you admire someone, you see the person, their strength, their ability to push, their dignity).

Octavia Spencer played Minny Jackson well, albeit not Oscar worthy well.. While she didn’t look like a total Mammy, I’d lie if I said she wowed me the same way Davis did. I’ve seen the character before and while she acted well, it wasn’t a revelation. But she did have the coldest line/plot in the movie when she got her revenge against Hilly.

Yet that “Frying chicken tends to make you feel better about life” comment was so stereotypical and borderline troubling. Minny’s complete reaction while saying that line made me cringe like Prissy’s act in Gone With the Wind.

How the heck did Jessica Chastain’s character get an Oscar nod? Celia Foote was sweet, beautiful, but wildly ditsy and a clear type. Maybe I’m unfamiliar with Chastain’s range (heard she was brilliant in “Tree of Life”) but I found that character weak despite her sympathy and good heart. It was a typical White outcast with a heart of gold, but nothing overly special? Bryce Dallas Howard deserved an Oscar nod more for giving Hilly Holbrook the right amount of venom and coldness as the movie's villain. 

Skeeter was a noble character yet I had a problem with her leaving the scene to leave the maids to face what happens. While they had strength to handle it, it felt flawed because in the real world, their heads would be on the line. Yet I understood her concern about not leaving. I admired her genuinely wanting to change things and that even in her initial naivety/charity, her intentions were noble and a sign for what more people should do.

My problem is never with White folks helping the cause. My problem is how it’s made to seem it’s their idea to help Black people instead of working with them to fight something they’ve already been fighting.  Too often, they’ll get the praise (from others, not their own desire) instead of sharing the credit.

Ultimately I am torn because I liked this movie and I’d could actually recommend this movie. I don’t want to say I liked it but I can’t not say it. It was well done. The movie was good, Viola Davis was stunning and I genuinely enjoyed it even if it bothers me saying that. All I ask is that a story is told and sold well and The Help was. I am curious to see if the book showcased more of the horrors of it.

My issues are still with the bigger picture that if these kinds of movies, no matter how well done they are, are successful, what will the future hold. Tyler Perry’s films are successful and so we see that same model instead of balance (or the balance doesn’t get promoted enough). It’s not an overtly stereotypical flick if you’re looking for caricatures and demeaning attitudes (most of the time) but yet it’s a subtle reminder of who’s the star, who plays the bigger role and what Hollywood wants to tell you about race.

Will Viola Davis get another chance to shine in a leading role? Heck Octavia Spencer has less hope of being anything than a supporting actor? In 2012, why are Black women winning awards for maids after Hattie McDaniel did in 1939? You can play a demeaning role with dignity but yet why is that Davis’ first leading role? It speaks to the lack of variety for older actresses, especially Black ones.

Seeing the legendary Cicely Tyson in the movie scared me because that’s the fate of older actresses – bit roles that make us say “Oh, I remember you” instead of “Wow, what a talented actress who still has it” (a la Ruby Dee in American Gangster). Somebody made a joke that Tyson's on call to play those kind of roles but it's a shame because we forget how great an actress she is.

This interview with Viola, George Clooney, Charlize Theron and others shows that dilemma more.

It was a feel good movie. It gave the Black characters some dignity and recognized their power and boldness. It helped them find their voice although I know historically, that voice was always there but it was silenced by the times and expressed differently in private. The story gripped me and forced me to ease up on how I felt beforehand. With all I said, it was well done and I hope it leads us to talking more about how we treat those who help us and well as Hollywood and race.


  1. Great post Evan! Having read the book and seen the movie, I really enjoyed your thoughtful and honest analysis. I especially appreciated it when you talked about the importance of having admirable characters rather than ones who evoke mostly sympathy. You really spelled that out well. I thought the book and movie were a little "chick flick" as you say, but I found the author's note at the end of the book to be very interesting. You may want to check that out some time - I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that as well.

  2. Thanks Amberly. I was really torn after watching it because I expected to be more angry and rolling my eyes. But I hated to admit I liked it - then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that movies like The Help are ultimately feel-good movies to explain racism instead of make people make the connections to now (something Octavia Spencer always did whenever she got an award) and bring people to the present.

    The characters were def. better than I thought and I give the actors credit for that. I do want to at least read the book.