I first saw The Help with millions of others when it opened on Aug. 10. My first reaction was that the film was an interesting diversion. Other filmgoers have since told me that they thought the movie to be one of the best of the year, so I felt compelled to watch it again. I’m glad I did. Because now I’m convinced that, while mildly entertaining, The Help is neither an important film nor an acceptable piece of historical fiction. In fact, at its core, it is a manipulative piece of Hollywood revisionism.
In 2000, a London history professor, in critiquing a thesis titled, “China and Historical Capitalism,” said the author had “sucked the life out of the past and flattened history.” Somehow those words resonated with me more than any others as I reconsidered The Help.
The Help may pretend to have plenty of heart, but it truly lacks the element its story requires: a soul. For anyone old enough to even remotely recall the 1950s or ’60s, The Help is an insult. It revisits stereotypes and, to a large degree, embraces them. “Fried chicken just tend to make you feel better ’bout life,” says one of the film’s black characters as an approving white woman beams. The scene was gut-churning. For anyone not familiar with the source material, Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel of the same name tells the story of how Mississippi housekeepers raise generations of a wealthy community’s white children, only to see them grow up and turn into ignorant, cruel racists. All of this is seen through the eyes of Skeeter, played in the film by Emma Stone. Though Stone’s performance lacks any credibility, it is clearly Oscar baiting with her endless over-emoting.
Oscar will clearly come knocking on the doors of several high-profile performances from The Help’s cast. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson should all be expecting a wake-up call from their agents when nominations are announced in January.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences embraces movies like The Help, and it adores female performances in such tripe (Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich). But, if anything, The Help steers audiences away from a serious dialogue on an issue as complex as race relations in America. The Help fails on so many levels by tossing its one-dimensional heroines and villainesses against one another, with embarrassing confrontations.
When the film is over—and it couldn’t end soon enough for me—moviegoers may think they watched an embracing examination of the segregated South. Instead, the excruciating 146 minutes is not much more than a string of gossip one usually hears in a middle school. It’s cringe-worthy, especially from a movie that pretends to be so important.
Movies, particularly dramas, matter. The Bicycle Thief, Do the Right Thing, In the Heat of the Night, Milk, The Oxbow Incident: They all ask hard questions and sometimes even shape opinion. If a film like The Help is honored for its “excellence,” then the bar has clearly been lowered.