Help “The Help”
Published on August 9th, 2011 | by Ryan Wells2
The first time I caught the marketing whiff of Dreamworks’ “The Help,”which comes out tomorrow, I was walking into a late screening of “Midnight in Paris” at Chelsea Clearview Cinemas back in June and saw the movie’s poster near the men’s room.
The poster had balanced dark-to-light ratio of yellow running vertically. In the middle, it featured four actresses – two standing (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer) and two sitting (Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard)—all taking a stab at vapid, cutesy, “guess what’s on my mind” poses that felt like frontrunners for Facebook profile pictures for each of these women.
It wasn’t necessarily the layout and design of the poster that struck me pugnaciously but rather the purple bold lettering “the Help” just above the actresses’ heads, obviously there to shock, considering Davis’s and Spencer’s spatial coupling, wardrobe (maid uniforms) and skin color (black).
I forgot about Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 summer read of the same name when I saw the film’s poster this day in June. I try to keep up on new releases as much as possible, but there are only so many hours in day and my focus (and Cinespect’s focus) tends to be geared toward indie, experimental, repertory and foreign cinema. So naturally, seeing the poster and aggressive visual and typography I was embarrassed as hell as it was entirely left field even for a cinephile like myself who likes his film marketing campaigns cheap, dirty and controversial if they want to go that route.
I suppose the real hang-up I found with “The Help,” which was well-cast and entertaining, wasn’t necessarily that it felt like “The Color Purple” meets “Julie and Julia,” or simply this summer’s “The Devil Wears Prada” (our protagonist too, boringly played by Emma Stone (“Crazy, Stupid, Love.”), would love to be a dowdy journalist and must contend with the heaviness and priggishness of her superiors and cohorts in order to see it to fruition; wait: another writerly theme in the Julia Child flick too in the guise of Amy Adams, blogger). Indeed, it was the white guilt chain jerking that was done in such stupidly poor taste that I felt frankly uneasy through a good chunk of Tate Taylor’s film and thereafter.
I know my view is certainly outside of the general reaction the film is getting. At the advanced screening I was at, it was more like arena football than a movie theater in terms of the enthusiasm the audience members brought to the table. “The Help” easily pinpoints who’s evil, who’s eviler, the dear but dumb, the wise, the effervescent all surrounding the dynamic of the upper middle class white women of Jackson, Mississippi (their husbands were portrayed as spineless or simply couldn’t be asked) and their black maids who just aren’t going to take it anymore and are coaxed into writing about their work in a tell-all, anonymous book of tittle-tattle. This does not surprise me, as it’s summer, it’s Hollywood, it’s the Obama era (we’re post-race now, right?) and there are tickets to be sold.
The hang-up lies therein in this preposterous necessity to characterize the white characters in “The Help” with a kind of “you’re either with us, or against us” mentality. Frankly the only two redeemable white women are Skeeter, the tomboy, fresh from New York City, and dumb, dumb, dumb blonde Celia (played swimmingly by Jessica Chastain, who was last playing a Demeter-type character in “The Tree of Life” and has now fallen a few branches by portraying a va-voom, ditz wife who’s an outcast of the WASPs). So as a white moviegoer, my moral solace (not that I necessarily need one) is represented by these two who take the Oskar Schindler-lite role, so to speak, by symbolically delivering the housemaids from evil, whether by hiring them (Celia, who, in turn, finds camaraderie and trust) or using their story essentially as a reason to make it big to go back to that liberal beacon of hope New York City (Skeeter). It’s as if these characters stumbled into “The Help” from some Reese Witherspoon vehicle, which isn’t particularly a bad thing; it’s just wholly tiring, embarrassing and anticipated – the stereotypes, that is, even if it’s a period piece.
I have nothing against films that point out the corrupt, bigoted and plainly cruel acts whites have committed against other races in our history. In fact, telling American history, warts and all, should be done a hell of a lot more than the works of Spike Lee, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Gone with the Wind” or “Roots” to name a very tiny few (add John Sayles new one, “Amigo,” to this list). We’re a long, complicated history and each of us—regardless of our gender, race or sexual preferences—fit into this tapestry and sit squarely on the sides of good and evil even within our own peoples.
I can only speak from my perspective as a white male, but films like “The Help” do a disservice to move beyond white guilt and actually look at our collective histories as Americans without creating unnecessary amounts of uncomfortableness because of the God awful displays and characterizations the film wants to deliver in order to sell tickets. Though it’s summer, we’re an audience who should be (hopefully) intelligent enough to be given smart screenwriting and points-of-view, particularly over a topic like civil rights, that actually let’s the audience settle in to their seats and confront the issues at hand (whether comedically or with melodramatics, I’m for both). Instead, “The Help” creates an invisibly divided audience where the white, chain-jerked filmgoers nervously wait for black folks to lead the laughter…just in case, you know?