Yesterday, I came across one of the harshest, most wildly bold essays I’ve ever read concerning film. The piece, entitled “Is The Help the Most Loathsome Movie in America?” is searing, direct and, most importantly, 100 percent accurate.
In Touré’s essay for Time Magazine, he compares the experience of watching Tate Taylor’s film to that of “visual waterboarding,” saying that the movie depicted a world where "blacks are basically a step away from slaves,” which, whether or not you liked the film, is a very true statement. The essay also effortlessly captures how completely reductive the film is, among other things.
Let’s move away from the fact that The Help is not well written, very clumsily edited, aimlessly shot and does nothing at all to achieve what its tagline promises. Basically, let’s take film criticism out of the equation.
Touré’s comparison to the lack of consequence or violence in the film as being “historically absurd,” and “Dalí-esque” is ingenious. That was one of the many issues I had with the movie, and the main one I want to discuss here.
The era surrounding The Civil Rights Movement is something that fascinates me. I love reading and studying about the fight, the struggle, the pain, and the subsequent accomplishment. With that in mind, I am in no way a historian, and I’m not going to pretend to be one. I don’t need to see a maid be beat (or shot) by her employer, or a man be lynched by bloodthirsty whites for a film to be effective. I don’t take issue with a PG-13 movie detailing a very un-PG-13 time in American history (Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Malcolm X is evidence of this). But I do need substance. I need to believe that the world the characters are living in is indeed real, which is certainly not the case in The Help. Imagine a history teacher showing The Help to his or her sixth grade students. With no prior knowledge of African-American struggle in America, these kids would assume that life in the Deep South wasn’t that bad for black people in the ‘60s.
My go-to argument for The Help is that it is a Lifetime Movie of the Week. No style, no substance; glossed-over schwag desperately grasping at the tender hearts of its viewers. And that’s me being kind. Because, after all, who am I to intrude on the opinions of other people?
It isn’t just members of the Academy who drank the Kool-Aid – the movie netted roughly $144 million in profit and was received moderately well among critics. This praise isn’t without merit. I’ve said from the beginning that Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain did wonders with the remarkably weak material they were given (I’m talking about Taylor’s script, not Kathryn Stockett’s book, which I have no intention of ever reading – period). I still do not understand the praise for Octavia Spencer, her performance seemed like a cookie-cutter Mad Black Woman role, or, as Touré asserts, a modernized Hattie McDaniel.
When I first saw The Help, I was genuinely apathetic, calling it long, boring and forgettable. I gave it a C- and thought it’d go away. Obviously I was wrong (and obviously, I’d grade it much lower now).
In short, I think The Help is a huge step back. I think it’s misleading, misguided and inaccurate to the point of bafflement. You can like the film, fine; but you can’t say that it got it “right.”
Talking about steps back, I find it interesting (or sad, or pathetic, or perhaps scary) that the only none-white actors in contention for Oscars this year were nominated for playing servants. Perhaps I’m digressing from my main point here, but, yes, I understand that very few movies are made that give minorities a chance to shine and earn Oscar nominations. And I’m not even saying that last year contained a host of overlooked, Oscar-worthy performances by minorities (because it really didn’t). I’m saying that, this is 2012, and it shouldn’t take a movie about servant black women fighting The Man (or Hispanic gardeners fighting for legal status) to remind Oscar voters that minorities can act too.
When Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (presumptively) win their Oscars later this month, you won’t hear me complaining. The movie they represent is a serious digression, but their Oscar wins will be rather progressive. But be warned: movies like The Help are dangerous. They say that it’s okay to sidestep serious issues and show people that, well, it isn’t really all that bad. Again, I don’t need brutality for a film be effective, but I do need it to be correct. At least in the world it creates. The Help appears to take place in reality. I would strongly argue otherwise.