The Help

The Nominations:

  • Best Picture
  • Actress in a Leading Role: Viola Davis
  • Actress in a Supporting Role: Jessica Chastain
  • Actress in a Supporting Role: Octavia Spencer

The Black-and-White:

A review by moviegirl

The one-line synopsis I hear most often for this movie (and the book that it’s based upon) is this: African-American maids in the segregated South. That’s understandable, given that the title is, after all, The Help.

But I think that this synopsis from imdb.com is a bit more accurate:

An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maid’s point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.

It’s more accurate because, as much as people like to say that this is a movie about black maids, only three of the stars are African-American — and that’s counting the legendary Cicely Tyson, who has roughly the same blink-and-you’ll-miss it screen time as nominee Viola Davis did in her (also-nominated) performance in 2008’s Doubt. The vast majority of the screen time — and the stories — are about the white folks.

Indeed, the core story is of a young white woman who uses a middle-aged black maid to further her own career: first, by using the maid to provide all the expertise for the column that the young woman gets paid to write for the local newspaper (without even the offer of compensation to the maid); and later, by getting the maid to write down her own story and then recruit other maids to tell their stories which the maid writes down for the young woman to type up.

Even though I’ve read the book and seen the movie, I’m still confused about what exactly the young woman’s contribution to book was, or why the big city book editor (yet another stereotype, right down to the “New York sense of humor,” as Toby Ziegler would say) would have concluded that this act of typing was enough to rate a job at the publishing house for the young woman (as opposed to the middle-aged maid who was the one who actually wrote and distilled her colleagues’ stories).

But those questions — as well as the question of why Stockett’s characters seem to believe that the Civil Rights movement hasn’t yet begun, despite the fact that Jackson, Mississippi was one of the destinations for the Freedom Riders in 1961 — can be left for another day since, thankfully, no nod for screenplay was given.

From what you’ve read so far, you can probably guess that I don’t think this is Best Picture material. I didn’t like the movie, I didn’t like the book, and I don’t think it should have been nominated at all. One of the things I find most objectionable about Hollywood is how the story of minority groups can only be told if the writer is able to find a white character through whose the story unfold (I’m looking at you Windtalkers and Come See the Paradise) (and I blame the studios, not the writers). If you want to tell a story about the help, then make the story about the help (Albert Nobbs, for example).

Viola Davis is the front-runner for Best Actress, and I think her performance was fine, considering the source material. I’ve only seen one other nominated performance (Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn) and I honestly can’t differentiate between the two in terms of which was better. We’re hoping to catch The Iron Lady this week, and I have a feeling that Meryl Streep will be head and shoulders above both of them.

I’m not sure what to say about Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, either. One of the most pivotal scenes from the book between them was not used in the movie, which leaves their relationship and their characters rather flat. I would much prefer to see the award taken home by the luminous Berenice Bejo from The Artist whose character has both depth and heart.

The Help did spectacularly at the box office, and I think is probably the highest grossing film among the Best Picture nominees. The book has been similarly popular among millions of people. My irritation and disappointment in both the book and the movie identify me as a(nother) minority — but I don’t mind. I’m in good company.

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2 Responses to The Help

  1. spacedcowboy says:

    It’s telling that the film did not receive any nominations in the writing categories – that may go to your reservations about the story itself. It also was left out of the Directing category – the combination of these put it definitely out of Best Picture competition. The acting nods were, I think, fine and deserved.

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