Best Picture Odyssey: “The Help”

The Help is exactly the movie that it wants to be, nothing more and nothing less, and I can’t really argue with it for that reason. It really doesn’t matter what objections I raise, because at no point during the filmmaking process was there a moment where someone would have fixed them. The Help is neither excellent nor awful. It is stuck in a weird middle ground where it is both beyond criticism and especially susceptible to it. Nevertheless, it’s worth talking about this movie, for a few reasons.

I’ll throw this out there right off the bat: This movie is not racist. And while I can see where the proponents of that argument are coming from, I think they’re being rather reactionary (or radical, if we’re making a pun). It’s not like the argument doesn’t have some basis. If this film were based on a true story, and not a bestselling novel, perhaps there would be fewer people complaining about the “White People Solve Racism!” angle being played up. But that’s not the case, so this conflict will continue to rage until the film has been forgotten about (which should be fairly soon). If anything, The Blind Side from a few years ago is a much more egregious example of the same theme. In fact, I believe that that movie is racist, in its presentation of a poor, struggling black boy who can only succeed in life after he is taken in by a kind, pious white family. That film had its heart in the right place, but unfortunately it came off as more than a bit offensive. But The Help never felt that way to me. Unlike The Blind Side, the races of the heroes has little to do with who is helping who. There’s a version of this movie where Emma Stone’s character is a black woman who tries to help these maids, and it would have worked fine. The film never purports some sort of superiority (either moral or intellectual) that Skeeter has over Aibileen and Minny, nor the other way around. Anything of the sort is imposed on them by society, and the point of the movie is that they are trying to remove it. The converse argument being made is that the film glosses over the racism of the time, but I don’t think that’s true at all.

Anyway, that’s all I’ll say on the subject for now. There’s more to talk about with this movie than the controversy surrounding it, and I have some problems. One, this movie is way too long. At two hours and twenty-five minutes, The Help is too dense for its own good. One could easily chop a half-hour out of this film. I’d start by excising an unnecessary subplot about Skeeter’s boyfriend that has nothing to do with the story,  distracts from the narrative, and ultimately goes nowhere. And as much as I love Jessica Chastain, many scenes with her character were pointless. I get the need to have her as a character – she’s an indication that there are other good people in the town – but (and I never thought I’d say this) her character is too fleshed out. We don’t need to know her complex history with Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. It has nothing to do with Skeeter, Aibileen, or the book. These are things that you can tell are from the original book, kept in for fear of upsetting its fanbase.

The big conversation about this film, of course, is the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Yes, they do a fine job. The characters are interesting in that they are written to be polar opposites of each other. Aibileen is reserved, focused, and submissive, while Minny is disarming, impulsive, and brash. Both actresses play these roles to their fullest, but Davis probably edges out Spencer by an inch. You can feel her emotions whenever she’s on screen, a tricky thing to do when playing a character who bottles everything in. She’ll probably win the Oscar, but I’d still like to see it go to Rooney Mara, who I think did just as well with a much harder character. Emma Stone is quite good as well, and here’s where I’ll admit to having a huge crush on Emma Stone. That crush probably has an enormous role in how much I liked her performance, so take my observation with a grain of salt. I’m not sure why this film won for “Best Ensemble” at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, though. I mean, the supporting cast was good, but not outstanding. I think that fellow nominee The Descendants had the most well-rounded cast of any film on the list.

The feel of this film is pretty interesting. The whole time I was watching it, I kept thinking, “This feels like a Disney movie.” Mostly it’s the score, I suppose, which feels like everything you’ve heard a million times before in other “inspirational” movies like this. The movie is full of bright colors and the whole thing is well-lit. The Help felt sort of fake, like it was made from plastic, custom-made to fulfill your emotional and spiritual needs. And knowing Disney, that’s probably exactly what it was. That’s my biggest problem with the film. Can I really trust a movie to be emotionally uplifting when the reasons for making it were so cold and cynical? After all, this is far and away the highest grossing Best Picture nominee, just as Disney likely intended. Is it wrong to get suckered in to something like this? Part of me thinks that it is.

Luckily, I wasn’t suckered in to The Help. Oh, it’s a fine movie, and the story largely works despite the quibbles that I discussed. In fact, one or two moments got me a tiny bit choked up (I didn’t cry, though, because I am a MAN). But here’s the problem. It wasn’t a movie meant for my demographic, so I can’t judge it based on any of those factors. And like I said before, it doesn’t want to be any better than it is now. It absolutely could have been, but it’s not like this is an unrealized dream by the director. This wasn’t stuck in development hell for years before finally seeing the light of day. It is what it is, and that’s all it’s ever going to be. Not an Oscar winner, but not one for the trash heap.

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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

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