The Movie Scab Reviews: "The Help."
"The scab you're picking at is called execution."
--American film producer Scott Rudin.
Monkey Boy gives The Help two Acks! out of five!
I'm a white Canadian and coming from that perspective I can tell you that this movie was made for white Americans by white Hollywood elites in order to make them feel good about themselves.
Now, there are some critics out there that suggest a comment like that is condescending, and I'll get to that in a minute. Let me get to what I mean first.
As I have often said on The Movie Scab, Hollywood takes itself very seriously--"We're making Art here, people!"--and thus, when it comes to serious issues like race in America, Hollywood will pat itself on the back and congratulate itself, or award itself (if it's Award Season) by making movies like The Help--"We're making Art here, people, and tackling serious issues like race in America! Freedom!" Apparently, Hollywood is so insecure (and guilt-ridden--look at all that money they make, geez-Louise, it would make me feel guilty too) that they need to tell the world every once in a while that, yes, they care about serious things, like, you know, stuff like cancer and stuff like race in America and stuff.
Hand me a tissue and here's my $15 bucks for the movie ticket.
The Help is "race in America-lite." It's like a beer without all those nasty calories, you know, like a tasteless Michelob Ultra, the worst beer ever made. But here's why Michelob Ultra exists and here's why people drink it: it makes you feel good (intoxicated) without a lot of guilt.
Now, here's the part where I'm not being condescending: The Help is a worthwhile movie. In the very least, it's a good thing that a movie coming out of Hollywood is trying to tackle a serious issue like race in America. That is not necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself, and I'm sure the movie-makers were well intentioned too--at least, I'm sure they think they were well intentioned. And it should be obvious that this movie is nothing more than an entertainment--it's not meant to be anything else other than what it is. A feel-good movie. (But don't tell the people who made it that!) On all those counts, the movie is a decent and perhaps even good and worthwhile thing, and for me to say that is quite a compliment.
The problem is, of course, that this is just another Hollywood movie in a looong line of Hollywood movies that panders to black America through the white experience. So at the end of the day, it's not really about race in America. It's not even about black American history. It's about how white people (should) deal with race (and feel about it) in America, which is kind of racist, when you think about it, maybe, a little bit, eh?
But what do I know? I'm just a Canadian who watches a lot of Hollywood movies (that will eventually drive me insane) and I far too often find myself drinking in a bar after I've seen a movie I have to review. (It's the only way I can cope.)
Here's the plot to The Help: set in the racially-tense Mississippi of the 1960s, the lives of a couple of well-to-do white chicks are fundamentally changed by their relationships with a couple of black maids that work for them, i.e., the movie's focus is on the white chicks, not the black maids, and the movie's protagonist--the heroic central character who tells the story--is the white chick named Skeeter. She dares to talk in secret with the black maids and then decides to take it further, upping the danger, by writing a book about "the life of poor black maids in the racially-charged Mississippi of the 1960s," a book based on one-on-one interviews with real black maids. All of this is done in order to show the (white, wealthy and educated) world just how terrible black maids are treated in the American south by the white, wealthy and educated, the end result being that the white, wealthy and educated southern Americans are made to feel so darn awful about it that they start treating their black maids with more respect--that way, their black maids will work harder, better and stop bothering them about all that pesky racial issue stuff.
This is Skeeter's movie. It's not the maids' movie, Aibileen and Octavia (played by the remarkable Viola Davis and Minny Jackson). It's the white chick's movie and, let's be honest for a second: it's made for a white, well-to-do American audience. Unsure where black America and poor, badly treated maids fit in, regardless of skin color, but since this is a serious Hollywood film about race in America, I suppose it doesn't matter.
Thank God it's Award Season because they'll make it seem to matter.
Now. Viola Davis is an enormously powerful actress. She is a solid, talented, natural performer, and I really respect her acting work, and I know she's nominated for Best Actress because of this movie. In fact, her performance is so good it's actually worth the price of admission. Seriously. I'm actually saying that, believe it or not.
But. She shouldn't be nominated for Best Actress. She should be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Why? Because the main character is Skeeter (Emma stone, white chick)! I don't care that Viola Davis carries the entire movie--and it's true, she does. But that's beside the point. The point is, Aibileen, the black maid, is not the central character. Skeeter, the heroic white chick with the heart of gold, the white chick who takes the big risks and puts it all on the line (and gets rewarded for it too), she's the central character. Therefore, Viola Davis should not be nominated for Best Actress. Emma Stone should--not that she deserves it. She doesn't. It's a fine performance, but it shrivels in the powerful shadow of Viola Davis' Aibileen.
But that doesn't matter in Hollywood when they're patting themselves on the back.
I don't have to ask this question, but I'll do it anyway, just to make it clear: Does the movie really tackle the subject of race in America? Does it really and truly? Of course not. It's a white-wash if ever there was one, like Tom Sawyer painting a fence with "good" intentions. It's about as challenging as drinking a bottle of Michelob Ultra, but maybe, at the end of the day, that doesn't matter. The movie makes you feel good and it also makes you think about serious issues like race in America.
Flipping the other side of the ol' coin, well, hell, maybe that's a pretty OK thing.
At the end of the day, if you appreciate Viola Davis and her powerful acting talent and if you don't want to put too much thought into race in America, but just want to be made to feel good about it, by all means, go and see the movie--no shame there, no shame. But if you want to see a movie that seriously tackles race in America, skip it and go straight the bar. I'll save you a seat because I'm already there.
My rating: a bottle of Southern Comfort, straight up.