Racism is still a hot button issue in America, and though the civil rights movement was a previous generation’s struggle, it’s hard to address those issues cinematically and still make an entertaining film. 2011′s The Help comes at a time when issue pictures are out of fashion, and so it seems slightly fresher than it might have had it come out in any other decade. And yet, it’s the same sort of empowerment movie as we’ve seen before. The bottom line is that the film is fun and has good performances from performers like Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Bryce Dallas Howard. But as a commentary on the issues of race in America, it’s decidedly lacking. Check out our review…

The Players:

The Plot:

Skeeter (Stone) returns from college looking to be a writer, and finds a fitting subject matter in the black women who raise the children in the neighborhood. At first she wants to talk to her mother’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis), but her quest also leads to Minny (Spencer). Minny was the help for Hilly Holbrook (Howard) until they have a huge fight. Minny moves on to Celia Foote (Chastain), who’s considered the town’s tramp. Skeeter faces pressure to conform to Hilly’s ways, and Hilly’s is the film’s face of racism. She’s leading a campaign to get all help “separate but equal” bathrooms. As Skeeter listens to Aibileen and Minny, she realizes the story is bigger than the two.

The Good:

  • Cast: Tate Taylor seems to love his redheads (the cast is stocked full of them), but more than that he loves female performers. Every performer gets to have fun with it and deliver at least one memorable scene. This may be a simple story about complex issues, but the performers make it interesting. Even Jessica Chastain’s character – who might be defined by her breasts – is fun to watch flail on screen. But when you have powerhouses like Spacek and Janney, you know they’re going to have a couple good scenes, and because it is an ensemble you never have to stay with one section for so long you can’t enjoy – say – watching Howard play against type as a terrible person.
  • The Good of the Good for You : When going about making films like this, there’s often a desire to put sugar on the top, and perhaps pat the audience on the head. “You see that racism and a culture of oppression is bad, so feel good about yourself for not living in that time.” This film falls into that trap, but it also addresses the relationship between black women maids and their white children – some of whom think of their “mammies” as their real mothers. It also means that it features some scatological jokes as tasteless as anything conceived of by John Waters, but is done in a way that wouldn’t offend a grandmother.It’s a feel good movie, and on those terms the movie works.
  • The Slight Circumvention of the White Lead Conceit: One of the biggest problems with this sort of narrative and films like it is that they cast a white avatar to deal with issues that really aren’t about them. And so Emma Stone is the lead of the picture in a film about black maids. But one of the things the film does to sneakily refutes those other “Thank God for White People” movies is that it starts the film with Aibileen’s narration and ends with her, which then makes it her story. And though Skeeter is the conduit, it never feels like she’s saving the main characters (even if she’s giving them a voice). If it is Aibileen’s film, I don’t know how long she would have gone on about Skeeter, but then that raises a question outside of the narrative. To tell this story, are there any bankable middle-aged Africian-American actresses who can make that feasible, and can you sell that to an American audience that is still majority white? Tyler Perry, as successful as he’s been, has a ceiling. Is it good enough for a major motion picture to address an issue even while its main focus is entertainment, or does it have to dig deeper?

The Bad:

  • The Sticky Wicket of Race Relations: On some level, it’s good for a film to address social issues that America – as a culture  – is still dealing with, regardless of who is president. But as a feel-good movie on the subject of race relations in the South in the 1960′s, the film lacks much gravitas. Everything that is fascinating about the relationship between servants and masters, and what it means to be raised by a black woman is visible, but never the focus. Because of writer/director Tate Taylor and author Kathryn Stockett’s background, there is an authenticity here, but you still have very talented African-American actresses playing the roles they were relegated to in the 1930′s. Is this progress that two of the biggest roles for African American women all summer long are roles as maids? The questions are more interesting than the film’s answers, and for that I think the film is worth chewing on, but the question then becomes “if a film can’t end racism (which it can’t), how should it deal with it, and does it have to be super-serious in doing so?” Ultimately, the answer is probably not “by focusing the narrative on ineffective villains and concerned white people” but still there is a lot to unpack in America and the South, and their strained race relations. And it’s hard not to think about those things when watching The Help.

Overall:

The Help may be as full of it as the pie Minny bakes for Hilly, but it goes down easy, and in a summer of films that are about less than anything, it’s nice to see a mainstream movie – if not tackle – at least be about something important and interesting, and the view of how black women raised a lot of white children in the South is a great subject matter. This may not be the best film of it, but it works on its own merits.

Rating: 7.0/10

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