Friday, February 3, 2012

Why I Hate The Help

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.

26 comments:

  1. For me, personally, I'd go as far as to say that a movie such as The Help, released as late as 2011, is shameful. America at the moment is entering a revisionist time; Creationists wish to teach The Bible in Science class, Republicans want to 'tone down' the plantation owners' ties to slavery, and now we have x million people believing that all black people had to do was stand up for themselves.
    I have issues with the whole 'blacks being saved by whites' thing, which I would only have perpetuated by writing about it, so I deliberately chose to ignore this horrid film.
    I love your work here.

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  2. @Colin Wow, thanks so much for that; both your kind words and honest opinions, which I agree with wholeheartedly. I agree that The Help is shameful and horrid. It just makes it seem like everything was OKAY. Which is absurd.

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  3. I'm often very wary about films about racism. It's a very heavy-handed thing for me unless it's told in the right way like Do the Right Thing.

    I've been reluctant to see it and its running time (although I have no issues with films that are long) about a subject like this might be too overwhelming for me. I don't want to go see a film and be beaten over the head about saying "this is wrong and blah, blah, blah".

    I hate these kind of movies. That's what happened after watching Paul Haggis' Crash for a third time and realizing how bad it was. I wrote a review back at Epinions.com in 2006 when it was considered for the Oscar at the time. I found it to be imperfect but had some good things. I look at it now and wondered, "who the fuck wrote this?!".

    I think that when people will see this film again, they'll probably realize how bland it is.

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  4. true. but i saw "A better life" and Demián Bichir definintely deserved his nomination. basically if the director of that worked on "the help" it would have been a good movie

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  5. I didn't like The Help either and found it over-hyped, the characters were too cliché and one-dimensional, and the story so so predictable from the get-go. You are right that it did feel like a tv-movie. I couldn't agree more that in 2012 blacks should be nominated for more than slaves or servants ( :

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  6. My mum has read the book, and from what I said about the film's liberal attitude toward the period I.E it took a white person to inspire black people to fight against the racism that they were subjected, she said that the book does not do this.

    I enjoyed the film, despite its rather long running time, I was never bored, but I do have a problem with it, and that is the same problem as you. It does make it seem like that racism in the 60s was not all bad. It's oscar nomination for BP is utterly nonsensical.

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  7. @thevoid99 I completely agree with you about Crash. I went so far as to call it my favorite film of 2006. It had an immediate impact that was significant, but time has shown what it really is. I certainly hope you're right about The Help. I really hope it just fades away.

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  8. @FILMclatter I agree that Bichir deserved his nomination (did he deserve it above Fassbender and/or Gosling? No. But that's for another post). My point is, it'd be real nice to see minorities nominated for performances in which they are more than servants for white people.

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  9. @Chris Right on, brother. You have no idea how happy it makes me to discover that I'm not the only one who loathes this shit film.

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  10. @Myerla Hey fair enough. I can see how (or why) people enjoy the movie, it just feels very very false to me. But yeah, its Best Pic nom is purely baffling.

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  11. I did enjoy the movie, mostly because it was a touching story and it had good performances, but when Davis and Spencer win it will be hugely undeserved, their performances are all right but honestly, Davis was far more deserving in Doubt. Worse yet - the movie may look a little bit too optimistic and happy for the issue it is dealing with, but when these two give acceptence speeches it is just mortifying. They acting as if "The Help" made racism history, cured cancer and inspired Da Vinci to paint Mona Lisa. And standing ovation for Davis during SAG was laughable exaggeration.

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  12. @Sati. I've loved Davis for a good long while now, but yeah, her performance here wasn't even the sixth best of her career.

    And I also agree that their assumed speeches will be cringe worthy. This is a tough argument for me to pull off, because I do think (on a basic, human level), that two black actresses winning Oscars in one night is a great thing, if for no other reason than it may very well provide more "star-making" roles for black actors.

    Anyway, like I said, I won't complain when they win, I just wish they didn't think The Help actually helped "cure" racism.

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  13. I must say I really do agree with your insightful assesment- one tearjerker movie can't change anything. I just find it insanly distaseful for those actresses to make such speeches - they should just thank everyone who helped them without making it such a illusionally important movie. If they won why mix races and colour into it? It just enhances the differences. It annoys me to no end. I think you saw SAG too - it just seems to me like black people always need to emphasitze that the movie they won for is so important, while this isn't. There is no difference anymore, at leadt in any liberal mind so why remind people of it? their speeches would be fine in the 60's but now they just seem to speak outdated statements.

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  14. @Sati. Yeah, again, it's a tricky argument to take on, because I see both sides of it clearly. Bottom line: just thank whoever made The Help what it is. But don't pretend that your movie is more than just that.

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  15. Here's $9 that The Help won't be getting from me!

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  16. I agree with your assessment of the film and it's story, but I do think that the acting is worthy from the whole ensemble.

    Personally I would have loved to see Adepero Oduye and Kim Wayans from Pariah make the nominee list, but I guess the Academy prefers their actresses of color to be stuck safely in the past.

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  17. @NeverTooEarlyMP I read your write-up of Pariah and I'm dying to see it - not anywhere around me right now though. And yes, I think nominating a black actress for a contemporary performance is very rare. Mo'Nique and Sidibe pulled off miracles.

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  18. This is why I try to never read a post about a movie I might see, as we said essentially the same thing.

    Yours just made sense.

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    1. I liked your review! And I get where you're coming from: sometimes the people we watch a movie with inadvertently sway our feelings about it. But The Help is simply not for me.

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  19. I am ashamed to say that I liked the film when I watched it. It entertained me. Why I feel ashamed about it? Because you are right. I am not American and I don't know a lot about The Civil Rights Movement and the horrible stuff that happened in the 60's but once I read your article I had a completely different view on this film. I'm not saying this just to say that I agree with you, but you are right. The film was entertaining for me because the good ones win at the end and it made me feel good. I guess I fell in the trap. But now after I read your article I realize how unreal the universe in The Help really is. I agree that the performances of Davis and Chastain are fantastic, and even Spencer was good playing a character which I enjoyed following, but this movie is fantasy. It's just made to entertain, to sell a story with a happy ending. And if it is inspired from real events, the better. I hope more people realize this and value the truer stories.
    Thank you for opening my eyes.

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    1. Thanks so much for leaving such a kind comment. Your comment genuinely makes writing posts like these worth it.

      I didn't write this post to inspire hate. My only hope was, as you say, maybe open people's eyes to what I felt this film really was. I'm glad my essay could allow you to view the film in a slightly different way.

      Thanks again for stopping by, I'm going to check out FILME ŞI ATÂT right now!

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    2. It is interesting to read everybody's opinions about the film. I teach English in France, and I spend a lot of time explaining racial segregation in the fifties and the Civil Rights Movement 's achievements and difficulties. I show many documents, photos, documentaries and when I show my pupils extracts from The Help, they know what they are watching and in what historical context the scene is taking place.
      I still like that movie despite the true remarks I just read. It has to be watched with knowledge of the history though, you are right.

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    3. I really appreciate your insightful and articulate comment. It's actually quite fascinating to hear an educator's perspective on this film. I would never argue with someone over what films they like and don't like, but it is very reassuring, I suppose, to hear that you think my essay is right and/or correct. So thanks for offering that, I genuinely appreciate it.

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