Monday, September 19, 2011
There has, unsurprisingly, been a lot of discussion surrounding The Help since its release. Movies about race tend to do that. There have been the usual claims that it's another movie about whitey saving the black folk (although the film makes great pains to not come across that way, and I really don't think it does). There have been issues of representation - are the black people too saintly or just saintly enough? And perhaps more importantly, there's been debate about whether making a comedy about mid-century race relations in Mississippi is a good idea at all.
All that is sort of besides the point to me. My big beef with the film - along with several smaller beefs - is that it doesn't give racism its due.
Now let me explain. Racists be crazy, we know that. But there has long existed a strand of institutionalized racism in this country, and when people use that term "institutionalized racism" they're not talking about the institution like the government's an institution. It's not as though someone laid down the law and all the white people kind of sit around saying "I know, this segregation's a bitch, but what'll you do?" It was an institution because nearly everyone was onboard with it. Undoubtedly there were some people who bowed to public pressure because they're trying to keep up appearances or wanted to fit in or hey life's hard enough as it is without doing the whole changing the world thing and sometimes you just want a decent meal and to keep the electricity on. But for the most part? That was an ugly scene, man. But The Help would have you believe that NO ONE in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s was totally down with the whole racism thing except for ONE PERSON, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, playing somewhere in the key of Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz), who must have some sort of unimaginable power over the residents because she's managed to convince all of them to go along with this whole racism idea of hers. All except that damn feminist!
The story nominally centers around Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college grad who just landed a job as a journalist, in her quest to give voice to the long-suffering maids of Jackson, though she doesn't really have much of a story here herself. Her purpose is purely political - she's there to convince us we'd be just like that if we lived back then, and to assure the viewer that the filmmakers don't believe these racist things the characters are saying, because look here's this nice independent liberal woman who agrees with 2011 sensibilities and rolls her eyes at all this other silliness. Dramatically, her role is as the vehicle in which we travel to visit the maids - chiefly Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) - or the racists, or all the nice people who just can't wait for Skeeter to get the word out that black people are people too so that they can finally come out and say the same thing. It's as though, by the end, everyone suddenly woke up and said, "my goodness, the 1960s are here!"
There are other more objective, dramatic issues with the film. For instance, just to make sure Hilly isn't the only one we'll have, we're given Minny's abusive husband, who exists entirely offscreen, lest he take on the qualities of, y'know, a person. That'd be complicated. Then there's an extended, frequently referred to bit of quite literal bathroom humor that, were it a part of a Farrelly brothers film (and it would not be out of place), would earn derision from the very crowd who here celebrated it. But perhaps that's speculation on my part. Maybe what I meant to say is that it wasn't funny the first time, nor the nineteenth time the movie makes a joke about the same freaking incident. Don't these people have anything more important to talk about? There's also the scene in which Skeeter completely rips into her date, who despite being a bit of an ass, probably at least deserved the consideration of a conversation. And I'd appreciate this bit as a nice little character flaw on Skeeter's part - maybe she's a bit of a hothead? - if the film didn't leave a beat for the audience to cheer.
On the whole, the Tate Taylor's direction is an abomination that would make Stanley Kramer rise from the dead to join Paul Haggis in saying, "miiiiight wanna hold back a little there." Every opportunity for subtlety is completely glossed over - Hilly is absolute evil and Skeeter is absolute good. Pure and simple, and even the slightest suggestion otherwise would totally undermine what we're going for here, which is the oh-so-daring message that racism is bad. At least Kramer and Haggis had the guts to tackle the subject in their own time, and with characters that had some semblance of dimension. Taylor's direction is flat and uncompelling, barely a step above Judd Apatow aesthetically and near the bottom of the barrel emotionally. I know there are those out there for whom this created a grand emotional swell, but I simply can't get that worked up when the film can't give me an actual person to root for or against while actively denying the very real stakes that would have been present in this setting. It's no great victory defeating the concept of racism when that entire struggle is waged against a single person.
I swear the movie would have you believe Hilly invented racism, and as of 1960, was its sole proponent, so if we can just do away with her this whole misunderstanding would clear right up! Even her ancient mother (Sissy Spacek), who probably knew people who fought for the Confederacy, just adores the maids in that homespun racist sort of way (and the film urges us to laugh along with, and celebrate, a character who not too long ago had Minny fanning her with a newspaper, with absolutely no sense of irony about the whole thing). In one scene, one of Hilly's friends even tries to speak up on her own maid's behalf, and Hilly just keeps shutting her down like an abusive husband.
I don't have a problem with light, frilly entertainment, but I do think it's immoral and irresponsible to present something so complex, volatile, and still relevant so simply. The film's treatment of racism is too pat for a force that continues to drive at the way this country operates. It's a nice enough way to introduce a 7-year-old to the concept, I suppose, but no adult should accept the ideological undertones of the film. Sure, it makes mention of the KKK and of other people, somewhere over there, committing horrible acts based solely on the color of a person's skin, but the people in your neighborhood, the ones you go to church with? Oh, they'd never do that. Look at how nice they are! They might be a little curt, but that's only because life's stressful sometimes and they are so very Southern. But give them time, talk reasonably to them, and they'll understand. The film doesn't quite end on a note of "and none of that was ever a problem again!" but it seems to suggest it's only a few years down the line (just as soon as Mighty Liberal Skeeter puts a stake through Hilly's heart...or something).