The Help Needs Help: a Reflection from Steve

I wish I could highly recommend The Help. I can’t. It is worth seeing, but the story deserved a much better movie. Maybe the story is the problem and the topic deserved a better story. I do know this, the movie is deeply flawed. I also know this: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson deserved a better movie. These actresses gave outstanding performances as three of the maids. Davis will be a favorite to win the best supporting actress Oscar and Spencer could be nominated, too. It was so good to see Cicely Tyson again. She was only on screen for a few minutes, but they were among the best scenes in the movie. The flashback scene where she talks to Skeeter on the bench was one of the most deeply moving in the film. It rang so true and that moves us towards the fatal flaw in The Help. The black characters were richly and powerfully presented. The white characters were not. I love Emma Stone and I thought she did an admirable job as Skeeter, but ultimately I felt she lacked the acting chops to give the role the depth it desperately needed. The bigger problem was the other white characters. Too often they came across as grotesque caricatures. The best example is Bryce Dallas Howard’s portrayal of Hilly, a racist writ large. Were there racists like her in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963? No doubt there were. Are there still racists like her? Unfortunately yes. Yet, as true to life as her character might be, she felt like a stereotype and easy target to me. That type of characterization of the whites cheapened the movie. At times I felt offended, not by the way whites were presented, but by the way that representation detracted from the story of the maids. The problem lies not with the quality of the acting, but with the writing and directing. Similar critiques were raised in regard to Kathryn Stockett’s novel itself. She co-wrote the screenplay, along with Tate Taylor, who also directed. Some were surprised that the inexperienced Taylor was given the chance to direct this high profile movie. It turns out that he is a hometown friend of Stockett. I think Stockett and Taylor’s intentions were good. As my blog partner wrote in his piece on this movie, it is a wonderful thing to give voice to the voiceless, to help “the least of these” as Jesus commands. Unfortunately, the tone of the movie undermines that objective. The desire to fashion a light, feel good movie is an insult to the seriousness of the topic. This almost felt like two movies in one. When the majority of characters on the screen were black, it was a very fine movie. Not so when the majority of characters were white. This lead to some jarring transitions. The murder of Medgar Evers and the police brultality against one of the maids felt like they belonged in another movie and that, finally, is why I cannot highly recommend this movie. Rather than giving voice to the maids, it feels like a movie designed to make all of us “non-racist” whites feel good about ourselves. That approach simply lets us off the hook too easily.

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