The Sweet Smell of “The Help”

September 14, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
A stirring black-empowerment tale aimed squarely at white auds . . .
So begins Variety’s take on “The Help.”

Really?  White auds, yes.  But is this movie really about black empowerment? 

Years ago, I speculated here that all American films were about success.  O.K. not all of them, of course, but many of them – even movies that seem to be about something else. Love and romance, for example. Or race relations. 

Variety continues
 “The Help” personalizes the civil rights movement through the testimony of domestic servants working in Jackson, Miss., circa 1963. . .
Civil rights?  As I’m sure others have pointed out, “The Help” is civil rights lite if at all.  It does personalize things. That’s what movies are good at. They’re not so good at showing us larger structures and forces. “The Help” not only reduces political and social issues to the individual level, but even the individuals seem less like real people than like caricatures.  It’s all very simple – good guys and bad guys. Or in this case good women and bad women (men in this film are an afterthought).  Bad woman really – just one, the mean girl (Hilly). The other white women may be a tad ignorant, but they’re well-intentioned. And the black women are nearly perfect. 

As is typical in American films, all conflict is external. Nobody has to face any truly difficult problems or dilemmas that have only imperfect solutions.  Right and wrong are simple and clear.* That’s the way we like our movies.

But what “The Help” is really about is success.  The central character is the white girl Skeeter, and the story that arches over everything else is her career.  The problems and triumphs are the ones she faces in her pursuit of success – landing a job, getting an idea for a book, securing the cooperation of the help, keeping the work a secret, writing the book, meeting her deadline.  She plugs away, finishes the book, and sees it become a best-seller.  Ultimately she moves on and up to the New York literary world. 

It’s The Little Engine The Could chugging through Mississippi, and it requires about the same depth of thought.**  If you do see this movie, when you’re done, go watch “Nothing But a Man” (your local library should have a copy) for a grown-up version of the South in the early sixties. It also has a much better soundtrack

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* A minor sub-plot that takes a few minutes of screen time involves a real moral dilemma faced by Skeeter’s mother. She too turns out just fine. 

** The movie does have its virtues.  It looks good, and some of the actors are excellent (Viola Davis will probably get an Oscar nomination; maybe Allison Janney too).  It was made without big names and without special effects, so it cost a pittance by Hollywood standards.  It has brought in $130 million gross and counting, five times its cost, so maybe it will nudge Hollywoods’s blockbuster mentality, and we’ll get more small films.

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