Monday, August 15, 2011

Considering The Help

I went to see The Help this weekend, dragging my feet all the way. It's a film about a Southern white journalist in 1963 who bravely interviews black housekeepers in an effort to tell the truth about racism in Jackson, Mississippi. I felt resistant because I've followed some controversial articles critiquing the movie for being yet another pop-culture celebration of the (always fictional) white heroes of the civil rights movement.

To be honest, there's very little I can say about the movie that would redeem it from that particular criticism, but there were things I found enjoyable about it anyway. I was glad I chose to support it with my money, for these reasons:

1. It's a phenomenally strong female-driven cast. Men are a subplot in this film, and even then, only barely. As we know from the shocking-but-typical minimization of women in film, that's nothing short of miraculous for a Hollywood blockbuster.

2. Within the ensemble, there's an armload of black actresses who know how to bring it, each of whom got a chance to shine. Far from being minimized, their role in the film was stronger and treated with more respect than I expected.

3. Our spunky heroine enjoys having a man, but doesn't need one. (The movie doesn't need him either, frankly, but perhaps you can't fight Hollywood on too many fronts and still expect to be a blockbuster.)

Overall, I still didn't love the movie, but for unexpected reasons. Here's my problem: If you're going to make a film centered in the world of white housewives, be real about it. I think the film missed a major opportunity to show a more nuanced picture of the civil rights era from a white perspective. The evil housewives are one-dimensional caricatures; they don't seem like real women with struggles and motives and flaws. I would have enjoyed the movie more if it had taken me to the uncomfortable place of sympathizing with them, in all their racist ways, instead of merely mocking their small-mindedness. It's admittedly fun to mock them, but the few real glimpses of their perspective skewed melodramatic, and I felt let down by the way the film turned some very insidious issues toward comedy. Like what it really would have meant for a black woman to defy a white woman in some of the ways the characters do. It didn't feel like a movie set in the 1960s, it felt like a movie made today about the 1960s, and as such it may please the crowd but it fails to tell the truth.

That said, this movie's going to be a blockbuster, and with cause. There's some great stuff in it, and it's definitely worth a look.

So.....go see it, and tell me what you think.

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