Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review of "The Help" (film)

Having read one scathing review and having watched an interview with Tate Taylor, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film, in which he defends his soft-pedal approach to the rampant racism of 1960s U.S., I was certain that I would not be contributing my hard-earned dollars to the makers of the movie, "The Help." Then Cindy called. She had read about the movie and, knowing of my interest in racism in general and the negative stereotyping of African American women in particular, she invited to me to go see it with her. Now I had a dilemma: an incredibly rare night out with a woman whom I respect and admire or sticking to my principles.

Initially, I warned Cindy of my skepticism regarding how black women would be portrayed, based on what I had read and seen to date. (For a thorough but concise background on persistent stereotypes of African American women, see Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and their Sisters, by Yarbrough and Bennett.) She assured me that, after the film, she would be open to any venting I needed to do. So I reluctantly agreed. As days passed and the night out approached, I read more reviews - a couple of them positive - and spent some prayer time on whether I should go to the movie or back out. This prayer also included a request to help me reconcile my budget (or lack thereof) with the cost of a movie and after-movie drink. The place I came to was, it was not fair for me to judge a movie based on reviews which agreed with my bias that Hollywood rarely portrays African American women as anything but Mammy, Jezebel or Sapphire (aka, the Angry Black Woman). Further, even if the critics were right, how could I educate those who buy into the stereotypes unless I, too, had seen the film and could give specific examples of how those stereotypes had been reinforced? And so it was that I entered the theater with my cynic's hat and a (relatively) clear conscience.

In the first few scenes, I cringed. There was Mammy and Aunt Jemima, in all of their glory, caring for the white family - especially the white children - at the expense of their own families. There were the servants in the kitchen, cracking wise about their employers with stereotypically colorful dialects and jokes. Around this point, Cindy leaned over and told me that, if I needed to leave the theater because the movie was too offensive, she would get up and leave with me. (I am blessed to have Cindy in my life!) But I had decided; I would stick through whatever caricaturizations I encountered, for the sake of educating others who had seen the film through culturally racist eyes. 

Soon, however, the tone shifted and the truth was revealed. Most of the white characters in the film indeed viewed the maids through a Mammy lens. And the maids were keenly, painfully, aware of this perception. But the maids also had families to support, children to feed and clothe, rent to pay. So they played the role which socioeconomics forced on them. And the hurt they felt at their circumstances came through beautifully. Kudos to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for the powerful subtleties they brought to their roles.

I cannot recall a single Jezebel in the film, and I was looking for her. Sapphire never made an appearance, either, even though Spencer's character Minny lived with an abusive husband. Did the black women ever get angry? Absolutely. But their anger was appropriate and directed at the sources of their mistreatment, not the loud, mindless venom and man-bashing associated with the Angry Black Woman stereotype.

I had only two issues with this movie. First, men are not generally painted in a favorable light. However, men play an incredibly small role in this film. It is, first and foremost, about the experiences of Aibileen (Davis), Minny, and Skeeter (played by Emma Stone). Men are but a tertiary influence on the story. The other maids and the other white women provide most of the interaction and influence on the plot. My second problem is  subjective; I do not care for happily-ever-after endings and this one had a few too many for me. Again, though, a self-check brought the realization that not all of the sub-stories had positive conclusions and, frankly, I was upset that the side story I cared about the most was not one of them.

As for the suggestion that Taylor played down the violence of the times, I have two thoughts. First, if he wants to influence those who do buy into the negative stereotypes, aggression is not a productive approach. Secondly, most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the events of the Civil Rights movement and the horrors committed in the name of white supremacy. What Taylor does in this film is to bring it home, into our living rooms and day-to-day activities. It's not about lynchings or sit-ins. It's about Aibileen, and Minny, and Yule Mae, and Skeeter, and Celia, and Charlotte. If you are tempted to think that the overtly bigoted characters are one-dimensional and overdone, I suggest that you've never sat in a social gathering of middle- to upper-middle class women - and I don't just mean in 1963, either. Both Cindy and I have had relatively recent experiences to which we could relate the gossip and mean-spirited comments which surround the bridge parties in the film, not to mention the peer pressure to conform, even when one is aware of the harm she is causing others.

Overall, I would rate this movie 4.7 out of 5 stars. It wasn't perfect, but it was darned good. Also, Cindy is minoring in Theater Arts at Portland State University and so has an eye for details such as settings and cinematography. She pointed out several incredible shots which Taylor captured. So here's my final recommendation: Don't wait for it to come out on DVD; go to the theater and see it now. Even if you don't have an interest in issues surrounding race, you will find this film to be well worth the price.


  1. A very well thought out commentary.Thank you.-Barbara Reynolds

  2. Dana I can't tell you how much I hated this movie. Great acting and a good script for what it was worth but the subject matter for me personally was just that, personal. My GG (great-grandmother) Anna was also a domestic. She was a great lady and we loved her. When I think back on her she was always telling us stories. I remember her always saying remember you are on your own so make your way. It was always about what you can and should do and not about what other people would do. However she told us how it was/is! I am sure that is why so many of my father's sibliings own their own businesses and strived not to work for other people.

    I was just a small kid and didn't really get it at the time and now as an adult I do find it hard to reflect back or think of all the things she went through without being bitter. I could go on and on but I will just say that I hated this movie!

  3. Dear Cee,

    Thank you so much for your comment! Since writing this post, I have had the opportunity to talk with others and now realize just how White my perspective on this film is. However, because the discussions were very academic in nature, I found it hard to express my lessons in plain English. By sharing a part of yourself in your response, you touched on what's wrong with this film in a way that I never could. Again, thank you!