How could I have forgotten “The Help”?

If you read my last post about depictions of the South in modern films, you may have already noticed what I noticed shortly after I had finished and published it . . . I forgot The Help! I totally forgot about it! Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, amid the backdrop  of Medgar Evers’ murder, this 2011 film was named Movie of the Year by AFI and was nominated for Best Picture at the 2012 Oscars, and it also won Montgomery native Octavia Spencer an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. (I had to add that “Montgomery native” part since all of us here are very proud of her!) The folks who made and starred in The Help needed a wheelbarrow to haul off all the awards it received.

I’ll get to the harder side of criticism about the film in a minute, but the first fact to consider involves its huge popular success. Lots of people saw it, and liked it. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 76% on their Tomatometer, even though its audience approval rating on the site is 90%. imdb.com has the film rated at 8 out of 10 stars, but farther down the page it lists the movie’s gross receipts at nearly $170 million. Even though these two movie websites give critical ratings that would equate to a low B or high C if this were school grading, on Facebook The Help has about 1.12 million likes. While the most easily accessed critical measures were only so-so, its wider appeal is obvious.

Given the number of characters and separate sub-plots for us while we watch the movie, The Help covers a lot of ground. Although we hardly even know that men exist – they occupy mostly the sparse background as husbands who come and go, with one very minor potential boyfriend sub-plot – the range of the female characters spans a pretty good distance. Our primary focus is on Skeeter, the recent college grad who has just missed becoming a big-time journalist and who needs only a little resume builder before trying again; so she gets a job writing a two-bit column for the Jackson Journal. (Personally, I ask: if the story was going to be set in real-life Jackson, Mississippi in real-life 1963, why not just have it be the real-life Clarion-Ledger?) We also have another main character in Aibileen, the cautious and stoic black maid whose son has died an untimely death and who has been raising white babies since she was 14. In a very significant near-main-character role, Minnie is the wide-eyed cook who has particularly interesting ways of standing up for herself yet who is being physically abused by a sight-unseen husband. And our villain is Hilly, the mean, redheaded, Junior-League racist who controls and terrorizes everyone with her fake-smiling passive-aggressive tyranny. The Help is carried past the threshold of a typical Civil Rights story by the use of these interconnecting characters, which makes the story appealing in addition to its historically significant setting.

Yet, according to Rotten Tomatoes, The Help is “arguably guilty of glossing over racial themes.” I have to disagree— if anything, it is guilty of glossing over the retaliation that would have been heaped on a young white woman who crossed the color line. The at-first reluctant maids who tell their stories are well aware of the potential and real consequences of their actions, and Hilly’s kind of direct action would have been realistic for a white middle-class housewife pleased by the White Citizens Council’s endorsement of her ideas. But the total hateful ostracism of Skeeter doesn’t really occur like it would have in 1963 Mississippi. That’s what gets glossed over. The story collector and writer of this tell-all book gets off scott-free, basically; the main friend she loses is one that none of us would want: Hilly.

When Slate.com reviewed The Help back in August 2011, Dana Steven’s review, “A feel good movie that feels kind of icky,” makes some very astute commentaries; first among them:

The Help, written and directed by Tate Taylor from the novel by Kathryn Stockett, belongs to the Driving Miss Daisy tradition of feel-good fables about black-white relations in America, movies in which institutional racism takes a backseat to the personal enlightenment of one white character.

While in the early 21st century we are pulling for the black maids to escape their situations, the truth of The Help, and others like it, say to us more predominantly: look at this enlightened Southern white person, isn’t she wonderful!  Minnie may be the most entertaining character in the film, and Aibileen’s sufferings may be the most cathartic, but Skeeter’s drama gets equal if not greater billing in this movie. To return to Stevens’ review, another right-on moment reads like this:

If The Help contained more moments in which Skeeter’s good will wasn’t enough—in which, despite her best intentions, she blundered by unintentionally patronizing one of her interview subjects and had to confront her own received ideas about race—contemporary viewers might recognize a moment we’ve actually lived through, rather than being encouraged to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come.

What disappointed me most about The Help was the the part in the end when Aibileen and Minnie tell Skeeter to take her success with the book and go to New York to accept her dream job, because their situation will not change. They will look after each other, they tell her. Skeeter smiles from ear to ear that they are so understanding— and that she gets to walk away from the huge mess that she has created, and that she even gets catapulted into a better life for it, leaving these two women behind to face the turbulent mid- to late-sixties in Mississippi. This aspect of the story seems to say: go and enjoy your privileged life, and we’ll stay here and clean up your messes like we always have.

I have to hand it to Kathryn Stockett and the adapting screenwriter, because they did manage to avoid the stereotypical all-or-nothing paradigm for the white characters. We have a good range of characters here: Hilly, the self-righteous and power-hungry bigot; Skeeter, the tomboy turned liberal journalist; Elizabeth Leefolt, the inept mother who follows the leader; and Celia Foote, the socially mobile white trash who no one will accept . . . and two very different wacky old Southern white women: Skeeter’s and Hilly’s mothers. Because for this story the majority of our sympathy will be rightfully heaped on the black women whose struggles incite the conflict, we expect three-dimensionality in them – and we get it. The Help also succeeds in is giving us sufficient complexity, rather than more of the same overly simplistic good/bad set-up to characterize Deep Southern whites in the 1960s.

To end, I have two final things. First, I did like The Help. It gets closer to human truths of the 1960s Deep South than a lot of popular feel-good movies. Second, I’ll admit right now that I haven’t yet seen another of the more recent movies that should have been on my “Ten Films” list: Beasts of the Southern Wild. So please know that I didn’t forget that one. I just couldn’t write about it, because I haven’t seen it . . . But I’ll get there.

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