I actually watched several things last night, including the season premieres of The Bachelor and Intervention. However, neither one of those is an Oscar contender. The Help is, so I decided I better take the time to watch the film via OnDemand.
Why Was I Watching It?
I wasn’t planning on seeing this movie when it first originally opened in theaters because, just based on the trailer, it looked like it would be your typical, terribly self-congratulatory mainstream films. I’ve seen far too many films that promote the same old stereotypes in the name of progress and tolerance, as if good intentions can make up for bad filmmaking. But, so many of my girlfriends came to me raving about how much they loved this film and then my Aunt Kate just about disinherited me when I told her I hadn’t seen the movie (or read the book that it’s based on) and eventually I realized that I had to see the film. Add to that, chances are that this film is going to be an Oscar contender.
What Was It About
In segregated Mississippi, aspiring writer Skeeter (Emma Stone) decides to write book about the life of the African-American maids and nannies who work for her best friends. After some initial difficulty, she wins the trust of two maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spenser) and gets down to exposing the truth.
First off, The Help is a perfect example of a well-made, entertaining mainstream film. I laughed at the funny parts, I cried at the sad parts, and I thoroughly enjoyed the film, even though it kinda fell apart during the 2nd hour. There’s a lot of very legitimate issues that you can raise about how the film portrays life in the segregated South but the film itself is entertaining and well-made.
It’s also one the best acted films of 2011 with Viola Davis, Octavia Spenser, and Emma Stone all giving great performances. Jessica Chastain is funny playing a clueless newlywed and Bryce Dallas Howard does a typically good job playing the type of bitchy Queen Bee that we’ve all know and have all secretly hoped would end up fat and divorced. I also thought Allison Janney, who plays Stone’s mother, gave an excellent and underrated performance.
This film was directed with a perfect eye for the details needed to make even the most minor of characters memorable. If nothing else, I enjoyed watching it just to see what everyone would be wearing from scene to scene.
The film’s first hour is probably as perfectly paced and tonally balanced as any film I’ve seen. However, things fall apart during the second hour (more on that below). Luckily, the film’s ending is powerful and partially redeems the film’s uneven tone.
What Didn’t Work
The film is moves along pretty well until the 2nd hour, at which point it smashed into a wall created by the inability of mainstream film to truly honestly deal with racism. At the start of the second hour, civil rights leader Medgar Evers is assassinated by a member of the Ku Klux Klan and I found myself waiting for some sort of expression of anger (or really, any emotion other than stoic suffering) on the part of “the help.” Instead, we get a scene where both Viola Davis and Emma Stone are watching Evers’s funeral together and both are impressed to see John F. Kennedy show up. In the next scene, Davis has put a picture of President Kennedy up on her wall next to a picture of Jesus. So, in other words, this film reacts to the murder of a black man but deifying a white man. After showing us a clue of violent reality, it’s as if the film can’t figure out how to balance out the ugly realities of racism with the film’s need to appeal to the widest possible audience. As a result, the next hour of the film feels rather disjointed and uneven. Even though the film partially redeems itself with one of the best endings of the year, it’s still hard not to feel as if we’re watching a feel good film about something nobody should feel all that good about.
Like a lot of mainstream films about racism, a good deal of this film centers on the friendship between blacks and a few white people who, magically, don’t appear to have a shred of prejudice within them despite the fact that they were raised in the same racist culture as every other white person in the film. As a result, the racism seen in the film doesn’t really seem like it’s an ingranied part of culture as much as it just seems like the result of a couple of bullies acting like jerks. As a result, despite its very good intentions, a film like The Help will often unintentionally minimize just what a struggle the fight for civil rights was and is.
“Oh my God! Just like me!” Moments
Needless to say, I totally related to Emma Stone’s character in this film.
It’s difficult to make a feel-good movie about racism.