In support of THE HELP
I resisted Katherine Stockett’s book, ‘The Help,” for years, which in premise alone inspired a personal cringe-fest of sorts. But when the online chatter about America’s new box office darling rose to a peak, I gave in and headed to the multiplex. And really? Not half bad. Here’s my response to many of THE HELP’s biggest criticisms. (A quick Google search will help you find the most prominent voices – but this statement from the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) saw a lot of traffic.)
1. If you don’t understand who Hollywood really is, maybe you shouldn’t be in a relationship with her. In other words, some of what’s been said online about the film seems to hold the material to a set of expectations that our girl Holly is simply unable to uphold. It’s not in her DNA. If you’re outraged by the softening or re-molding of historical events, characters who arc perfectly into models of self-actualization, and weepy moments filled with violin strings singing, don’t go to Hollywood melodramas. You can get more indie, more experimental, less classical fare from about a million different movie sources.
2. The criticism of the film’s use of vernacular are unfounded. That’s to my limited ear, at least. Viola Davis, who stars as the maid Aibileen, agrees here in an interview in Movieline, that the speech did not offend. People have expressed dislike and discomfort with what they term “childlike” expression (Aibileen tells the toddler in her charge, “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.”). From my view of the world, this way of speaking has nothing to do with race and everything to do with region, economics, and basically, the way your parents speak. If that happens to be the case in larger numbers amongst a particular race of people, that’s just numbers. The content of the maids’ speech in THE HELP is, by the way, far from childlike, as the characters are incredibly three-dimentional. My mother-in-law from Starkville, Mississippi is also an excellent Rorschach and she told me, dammit, that it’s spot on.
3. THE HELP is not a civil rights film. See 1. above. The film uses history (and uses it softly) as a backdrop and context in which to explore themes of making, first and foremost, personal change.
4. Is some of this critical chatter just a marketing conundrum on “who’s the protagonist?” One of the most interesting interviews I heard on the radio had a guest from the ABWH stating that if the film had only been marketed as Skeeter’s coming-of-age story rather than the maids’, she would “feel better.” This is exactly what Hollywood wanted to avoid, one more whitey-shows-us-all-how-to-live story, which would have pissed off everyone but mostly alienated black audiences. But the guest articulated this would have been more … honest. So it all comes down to marketing? I think we need to step off, as ‘twere, and call the movie what it is – a Hollywood melodrama. And hey – it’s a pretty good one! It’s got some problems, sure. Don’t they all? For me, it was Janet Maslin’s 2009 New York Times review of the book that illuminated these complexities most eloquently.