The Help

It’s hard out there for a white liberal who goes to a lot of movies; how do you decide which films are politically correct and which ones offend your sensibilities? Am I a Nazi sympathizer if don’t applaud when Captain America decks Hitler? A fallen Catholic if I support the concept of premarital sex and Justin Timberlake mostly naked in Friends with Benefits? Will PETA throw liquified Twizzlers on me if I check out Rise of the Planet of the Apes? To add to this dilemma, we now have the most guilt-inducing film of the year: The Help.

The Help is this summer’s surprise hit, as it contains no bulky men in tights or flashy CGI effects that leap off the screen at you. These kinds of films are usually reserved for autumn as the Oscar season is heating up and people are less distracted by their tans. Speaking of tans, it also contains one of the best performances of the year; Viola Davis owns this film and should have her name added to that short list of Best Actress nominees.

But here’s where the guilt comes in. This is a movie about the deep south in the sixties and the relationships between the white women who run things and their black maids. The plot centers around a young writer’s attempt to publish the stories of the women of color who are raising the children but still being treated as second-class citizens. Actually more like third-class, because the white women who boss them around are treated pretty disrespectfully by the men in their lives, so there’s a pecking order of power. Can a film written and directed by a white man from a book written by a white woman truly tell a story about race from a black woman’s perspective?

The book was a best-seller, but when I read the first chapter, my reaction was “Oh, no, she is not going to write the maid character’s thoughts in black dialect!” Unfortunately she did, but author Kathryn Stockett managed to get beyond that stereotype and the book was a truly moving story about the strength hiding beneath the downcast eyes of the domestic help. The film follows the book closely, but I felt some of the emotional connection was missing. The characters were more caricatures in the film, and although the period costumes may have been authentic to the sixties, they kept reminding me of the sorority women in Animal House. That’s not a good thing.

The film had some wonderful performances and is a mini-history lesson about a time when civil rights were being fought for in the kitchen as well as the streets. I liked it, but not as much as I hoped I would. Still, in a summer full of white guy super heroes and robots beating each other up, it’s refreshing to see another part of the population represented. Of the last ten films I reviewed, only one of them had women, black or white, in the leads. (That would be Bridesmaids.)

Thankfully not filmed in 3D, the film is easy on the eyes but problematic for the stomach. But it’s not the familiar nausea from a shaky cam that we’ve come to dread that will bother you here; it’s the sight of chicken being fried, chicken that is so brown and crispy and juicy that you can practically feel your fingers getting greasy with the Crisco residue. If they were going to bring back a film gimmick technique, this would have been the perfect time for Smell-O-Vision! Plan on going out to dinner when this is over; might I suggest chicken and waffles?

Barf Bag Rating: ZERO BAGS
Jalapeño Rating: ZERO PEPPERS
Interestingly enough, the other female-dominated film this summer prominently featured shit, as does this one. Both these films were directed by men. Discuss.

3 thoughts on “The Help

  1. I liked Owen’s column! I went to the 1:40 p.m. show here today and was amazed at how many people were there: mostly women, about evenly divided between black and white. The blonde Alexandria ladies looked like they’d be at home in a Junionr League meeting but I try not to judge. Lots of buzzing afterward. Wish I had a book club to discuss with. The movie was a bit sleepy–I think they did it a disservice by dialing back the Jim Crow sense of menace that pervaded the book. But the art direction is beautiful.One of the best things was the previews for grownups: Clooney and Gosling in “The Ides of March,” Stiller, Broderick and (yay!) Eddie Murphy in “Tower Heist.”

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