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The Help


Darrel Manson
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Nicely done adaptation of a popular novel. Some of the characters are a bit caricatured. One of my thoughts watching this is that if the Klan and others were worried about saving white southern womanhood, there was really nothing there worth saving.

I think it's the kind of film that could well pick up a few Oscar nominations, but not be favored to win any (except maybe Octavia Spencer in supporting).

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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"Problematic" seems to be a word that comes up quite a bit in reviews. Among the first reviews I've seen are these ones by Sheila O'Malley (you can't see it on the page itself, but if you post it to Facebook, the kicker provided for it says "The movie version of The Help wants its audience to feel gratified about the story of a white woman who helped African-American maids in Mississippi find their voice, which is problematic.") and Glenn Kenny ("The Help . . . is pretty much as problematic as you would expect, in all the ways that you would expect, but also in some ways that you wouldn't necessarily expect, either, e.g., it has almost as many "poop" "jokes" as The Change-Up.").

Just for the record, anyone who complains that this film is trying to make us cheer the white woman pretty much doesn't "get" the movie. Emma Stone is absent for significant stretches of this film, which begins and ends with Viola Davis, and it seemed to me that the filmmakers were going well out of their way to make the black characters more than mere supporting players in the white girl's story. Indeed, if, as they say, you can tell what a film is about by what has changed between the beginning and the end, then I think Davis has a bigger claim than Stone to being the heart of what this movie is about. But Stone is a pretty young girl who appears on magazine covers and Davis is an older actress who stars in small adaptations of hit plays, so you know which one the marketing is going to revolve around. (And, to be fair, Stone's character DOES provide the catalyst for the other characters' arcs.)

And yes, Emma Stone gets more impressive every day. Loved seeing this so soon after Crazy, Stupid, Love. (and her cameo in Friends with Benefits).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Incidentally, I completely agree with Manohla Dargis @ New York Times when she says that Viola Davis "doesn’t just turn Aibileen, something of a blur in the novel, into a fully dimensional character, she also helps lift up several weaker performances and invests this cautious, at times bizarrely buoyant, movie with the gravity it frequently seems to want to shrug off."

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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"Problematic" s "The movie version of The Help wants its audience to feel gratified about the story of a white woman who helped African-American maids in Mississippi find their voice, which is problematic."

Magical Caucasian

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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Just for the record, anyone who complains that this film is trying to make us cheer the white woman pretty much doesn't "get" the movie. Emma Stone is absent for significant stretches of this film, which begins and ends with Viola Davis, and it seemed to me that the filmmakers were going well out of their way to make the black characters more than mere supporting players in the white girl's story.

I'm of two minds of this, myself. I appreciated the fact that Aibileen and Minny were more than supporting players in Skeeter's story of redemption (or moral rightness or what have you), but I thought the movie went out of its way to cram in as many "moral white people being moral" moments as it could (Skeeter kind of gets a pass her, since it's initially her book they're working on; but I had issues with the racist-but-lovable Sissy Spacek character and pretty much any scene involving Jessica Chastain as the "ditzy white trash who knows more about being nice than the town women". Those characters felt like they stepped out of a movie less socially aware than the Aibileen-centric portions of the story).

Part of the problem, for me, is the fact that the issues portrayed tend to be localized rather than systemic. Most of the overt racism is concentrated in the Hilly Holbrook character--everyone else is portrayed as being under her sway or under the sway of someone just like her (as with Skeeter's mother--whose moral redemption comes, tellingly, not in some sort of expiatory act i/r/t people she's actually wronged, but in telling off Hilly Holbrook). With monsters like Hilly roaming around, opposing racism is pretty easy; it's less a matter of doing what's right, even, than just letting that uptight you-know have it. The help are less in the grip of a systemic evil than under the sway of a domestic one. Had the character of Hilly been less monstrous, and the other white characters been defined by something other than "nice" or "scared of Hilly," I think the movie could have been far less problematic than it is.

OTOH, the closing moments definitely make it clear that the triumph here is really Aibileen's, not Skeeter's. And it's Aibileen, not Skeeter, that gets to demolish Hilly and leave her sobbing. And I admire the way the movie portrays the act of telling one's story as a liberating one, and one by which these women gain power over their circumstances. So while I would agree that there's all sorts of problematic stuff here, I think the movie redeems itself in the parts that do work.

Indeed, if, as they say, you can tell what a film is about by what has changed between the beginning and the end, then I think Davis has a bigger claim than Stone to being the heart of what this movie is about.

Yeah, and by the end of the movie Skeeter's book is pretty much claimed by Aibileen as her own. Rather than being an act of white appropriation of a black struggle, the idea here (in principle, at least) is that the black characters appropriate a white woman's retelling of their struggle--an act of re-appropriation, if you will. Since the sections dealing with the white characters are so jarring, one could question how well the movie achieves its goal. But I think the intent is there, anyway.

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NBooth wrote:

: . . . and pretty much any scene involving Jessica Chastain as the "ditzy white trash who knows more about being nice than the town women". Those characters felt like they stepped out of a movie less socially aware than the Aibileen-centric portions of the story).

Really? I appreciated the inclusion of the Chastain character, as an acknowledgement of the fact that it wasn't (and isn't) all about race -- that there are other divisions, such as class, that come into play here. (Do I believe that the Chastain character and the black maid would get along as well as they do here -- that they would bond simply because they are BOTH rejected by the respectable white women? Not necessarily. If anything, it seems plausible to me that maids who have spent their whole lives working for the respectable white people would internalize some of those values and would resent being demoted to working for "white trash". But I also think one movie can only handle so many complications, so I'm not going to make an issue of that.)

: Part of the problem, for me, is the fact that the issues portrayed tend to be localized rather than systemic.

Ah, like the critic (I forget which one) who complained that the movie made it look like racism was just the result of "peer pressure"?

: Most of the overt racism is concentrated in the Hilly Holbrook character--everyone else is portrayed as being under her sway or under the sway of someone just like her (as with Skeeter's mother--whose moral redemption comes, tellingly, not in some sort of expiatory act i/r/t people she's actually wronged, but in telling off Hilly Holbrook).

That parenthetical comment is brilliant. And FWIW, one of the scenes in this film that rang really hollow for me was the flashback where we see what really happened between Skeeter's mother and Constantine.

: So while I would agree that there's all sorts of problematic stuff here, I think the movie redeems itself in the parts that do work.

Yeah, that seems like a fair assessment to me.

: Yeah, and by the end of the movie Skeeter's book is pretty much claimed by Aibileen as her own. Rather than being an act of white appropriation of a black struggle, the idea here (in principle, at least) is that the black characters appropriate a white woman's retelling of their struggle--an act of re-appropriation, if you will.

In that vein: I might be forgetting something, but if memory serves, Skeeter's publisher tells her to include her own (i.e. Skeeter's) story in the book, and there's at least one scene after this in which Skeeter says she will have to write her story down... but I don't believe the movie ever tells us what Skeeter's story IS. There's a flashback long, long before this where we see Constantine giving Skeeter some good advice; and there's a flashback after this (or perhaps between those two scenes) where we see what happened between Skeeter's MOTHER and Constantine, but did the film ever put Skeeter's own story front-and-centre, the way it put the maids'? Not really, apart from the story of Skeeter researching her book (and, along the way, defying Hilly's wishes as she does so). There's no real focus on what it was like for a white girl to GROW UP with a black maid raising her, not even despite the fact that Skeeter (following the wishes of her publisher) makes that a part of her book.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Owen Gleiberman @ Entertainment Weekly makes some compelling arguments in defense of the film, against those who think it's just another condescending movie about race for white liberals; e.g.:

What matters, in the end, about the reaction against The Help — and what invalidates that reaction, at least to me — is that it’s a case of people looking a little too hard for easy moral contradictions to skewer in a movie that, in fact, revels in its contradictions.

Along the way, however, he takes a dig at Secrets & Lies that comes out of the blue, at least as far as I'm concerned. Never in a million years would it ever have occurred to me that anyone would put that film in the same category as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Owen Gleiberman @ Entertainment Weekly makes some compelling arguments in defense of the film, against those who think it's just another condescending movie about race for white liberals; e.g.:

What matters, in the end, about the reaction against The Help — and what invalidates that reaction, at least to me — is that it’s a case of people looking a little too hard for easy moral contradictions to skewer in a movie that, in fact, revels in its contradictions.

Along the way, however, he takes a dig at Secrets & Lies that comes out of the blue, at least as far as I'm concerned. Never in a million years would it ever have occurred to me that anyone would put that film in the same category as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Gleiberman is compelling, particularly in contrast to articles like this one on AlterNet:

In The Help’s case, the history of civil rights in the virulently racist Southern town of Jackson, Mississippi, is neatly packaged into a heartstring-tugging Hallmark card, set to a rousing Mary J. Blige soundtrack, and completely trivializes the suffering and hard work that went into making civil rights a reality. It also infers, perhaps inadvertently, that after the ‘60s everything was fine and dandy for non-whites in America, not to mention domestic worke

The article includes the ABWH's objections, some of which strike me as pretty nonsensical:

We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood.

IIRC, there's exactly one drunk and abusive black man; there's several more (the preacher, the gardener) who seem like absolutely decent people. They don't show up much because, well, the movie's called The Help. It's like complaining that there aren't any good male characters in The Women (well, not quite, but still).

This point does strike me as pretty on-key, though:

Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.

For all of that, I think Gleiberman is right when he says these women are not re-iterations of the "Mammy" idea; though there's some trace elements of that, the movie destroys them by demonstrating (as he points out) that Aibileen only sticks around because she has to. The fact that she grows attached to the children she cares for only underlines the cruelty of the system.

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This point does strike me as pretty on-key, though:

Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.

FWIW, it doesn't entirely ignore it. There is that one frightening scene in which we hear that the Klan has killed someone, and Abileen is kicked off the bus and stumbles home in the darkness amid a lot of other frightened people milling about.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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This point does strike me as pretty on-key, though:

Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.

FWIW, it doesn't entirely ignore it. There is that one frightening scene in which we hear that the Klan has killed someone, and Abileen is kicked off the bus and stumbles home in the darkness amid a lot of other frightened people milling about.

True. I guess the issue is that the Klan activity, etc, is effectively sidelined by the focus on the "individual acts of meanness."

I'm honestly of two minds here: on the one hand, I don't want to see the real terror of the period pushed out of focus by a more genteel vision of the era which makes it [the era] look safer than it actually was; on the other, as someone who believes that oppression can come in many forms--not just wrapped in the Klansman's sheet, but also in the housewife's smile--I worry that focusing entirely on the more extreme ends of racism can make us immune to its "nicer" (not in the sense of being really nice, but in the sense of killing its victim softly) forms. It's a poser of a problem, and I honestly can't see a good way of resolving it--which may be why any movie/book/whatever that tries to tackle this period is going to be in some sense problematic: a movie, if it's to work as a movie, has to be pretty narrowly focused, and as a result the broader (systemic) issues tend to drop out of sight.

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I'm honestly of two minds here: on the one hand, I don't want to see the real terror of the period pushed out of focus by a more genteel vision of the era which makes it [the era] look safer than it actually was; on the other, as someone who believes that oppression can come in many forms--not just wrapped in the Klansman's sheet, but also in the housewife's smile--I worry that focusing entirely on the more extreme ends of racism can make us immune to its "nicer" (not in the sense of being really nice, but in the sense of killing its victim softly) forms.

I think there's a lot of truth in that. And too, you have to take into account the different ways a lot of people experience things.

Maybe this is a bit of an odd example, but when I was little, my father told me that The Sound of Music was a World War II movie. (It's possible I misunderstood him and that he really said it was a WWII-era movie, but anyway . . .) After I saw it, I was all, "But where was the war?" I was expecting tanks and all the rest of it. So he had to explain that it took place right around the beginning of the war, and the Nazis were the ones that we fought in that war.

My point is this: Lots of movies of that era show the Nazi threat in different ways. Because the von Trapps aren't shown as going into hiding like Anne Frank, or being mowed down on the beaches of Normandy as in Saving Private Ryan, it doesn't mean that they didn't have a difficult and frightening experience with the Germans. And just because the women of The Help aren't shown being directly threatened or attacked by the Klan, it doesn't mean they're not having a difficult time holding their own against racism. I think it's important to show how it worked in little ways as well as big, drastic ways.

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John McWhorter, The New Republic - "‘The Help’ Isn’t Racist. Its Critics Are."

Critics also seem uncomfortable with the fact that the film includes comedy. Non-black critics, too, are regularly exhibiting the same supposedly wise skepticism of such “hijinks;” the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis considers the occasional comedy scenes trivializing, as if in the old South blacks and whites spending most of their waking lives with one another interacted solely in chilly, guarded fashion. We like to imagine it that way, as it comforts us that we are aware of the injustice of racism. But to dismiss about ten total minutes of edgy antics involving Minny and about five more involving commodes and bad hair days as rendering the whole movie “about ironing out differences and letting go of the past and anger” is, ironically, a dehumanization of the black experience.

We dishonor black people of the past in assuming that they spent their entire lives fuming at the white man and suffering his abuse. As human beings with a survival instinct, they carved meaningful existences out of what they had been given. This included laughing and good times and, yes, some of it was between whites and blacks.

Laughing, good times, and love, too. The titillation aspect assures that we are regularly taught about the carnal part—Sally Hemmings and such. But maids who raise people’s children have always come to love them, and even Jim Crow could not stanch this fundamental aspect of human nature. It was once common in South Carolina and Georgia for white children to grow up speaking the maids’ “Geechee” dialect, so close was this kind of bond. Aibileen’s love for a little white girl seems to especially get under many critics’ skin: “The kind of ambiguity and complexity that a woman like Aibileen would have felt for that white child is too much for the filmmakers to handle,” Boyd complains. But it could be that it’s Boyd who doesn’t want to handle that a black maid could hate the racism of her society and yet love an innocent white child she spends six days a week one on one.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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  • 4 weeks later...

FWIW, this film has grossed $137.1 million as of this weekend, and has thus passed Superbad (2007, $121.4 million) to become the top-grossing movie Emma Stone has ever co-starred in, at least in North America. (The Help doesn't seem to have had much of a release overseas yet.)

This film, which opened in the #2 spot, was also #1 for the next three weeks, and thus became the first film to be #1 for three weeks since Inception (back in July 2010); it was also the first film to be #1 in its fourth week since Avatar (back in January 2010). It is back to #2 in this, its fifth week, behind the first week of Contagion.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 2 months later...

Favorite moment from watching The Help:

An old man sat behind me. Hard of hearing, he kept asking his wife (rather loudly) for clarification on certain plot points.

At one point in the movie, a woman who has suffered a *third* miscarriage confesses to her maid that she won't tell her husband about it. "He doesn't even know about the two before," she sobs.

The old man then asked his wife: "What the hell did she do with a two-by-four?"

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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  • 1 month later...

Jason Shawhan on The Help:

At best, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for everyone who insists they could never have gone along with the deeply institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. At worst, a comic lie that glosses over how such a scenario would have played out in real life. I think Viola Davis is stellar, and I don’t think the film deserves her. You can talk about friendships and giving voice to marginalized black and female characters, and I’m all for that. Stockett’s book and Taylor’s film gives voice to archetypes and schematics and cartoons. I wish, as a film, it was worthy of Davis’ performance. But it is not. It’s just another example of film that lets people congratulate themselves on ‘how far we’ve come.’
Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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  • 1 month later...

FWIW, earlier this week the USC School of Film and TV had a panel on Film and Social Change vis a vis The Help. It can now be viewed online

Below please find a link to THE HELP’s Town Hall/USC Panel on Social Change which has now been posted to EPK.tv.

https://www.epk.tv/view/#/campaign/the-help-dom/town-hallusc-panel-on-social-change/

PANELISTS:

• Octavia Spencer (Actress, “The Help”)

• Tate Taylor (Writer/Director, “The Help”)

• Reverend James Lawson – Pastor Emeritus Holman United Methodist Church, Legendary Civil Rights activist

• Rabbi Allen I. Freehling – Rabbi Emeritus, University Synagogue. Former Exec. Director Human Relations Commission, City of Los Angeles, and longtime social justice advocate

· Ai-jen Poo – Director, Co-Founder, National Domestic Workers Alliance

• Michael Taylor, Producer, Chair of Film and Television Production, USC

ABOUT THE PANEL: There is a vibrant tradition in American cinema of films that tackle compelling social issues. Seminal films, including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Norma Rae” remind everyone that the smallest acts of courage can inspire social change. This tradition continues with the recent film “The Help,” which examines the relationships between black maids and their white employers in 1960s Mississippi. The film reminds audiences that popular culture has the power to affect change and illuminate the plight of those without a voice.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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Viola Davis on The Help:

“If you were to come to me and say that you were ambivalent because you felt the writing was not balanced… that you felt — like with Aibileen and Minny and Yule May and Constantine — that you didn’t feel there were a lot of colors to the character, that their humanity was not explored… that you saw just a blank, flat unrealistic stereotype… then I would go with you. I think that is a fair criticism.”

Good for her.

This is a great interview.

Edited by Overstreet

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Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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  • 3 months later...

I finally got a hold of the DVD this week and watched The Help over the past two nights. I was a little shocked to find it, well, wonderful is too strong a word. But this movie plays. Beyond debates about the movie's content, I'm now wondering how the film's director was so casually dismissed in the run-up to the Oscar nominations. I got the sense that the movie's direction would come across as hamfisted but that it was trumped by a compelling story. Instead, I found the direction appropriately non-show-offy, allowing the actors to kill. In a movie that works as well as this one does, wouldn't that mean the direction is pretty great?

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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