Oscar Profile: The Help

by Tom Ingram

Genre History
People Viola Davis; Octavia Spencer; Emma Stone; Bryce Dallas Howard; Jessica Chastain; Allison Janney; Cicely Tyson; Sissy Spacek; Mike Vogel; Chris Columbus p.; Kathryn Stockett w.; Thomas Newman m.
/10 7

A white writer seeks her fortune by interviewing black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, during the height of the civil rights movement.

I recall hearing about The Help as a book before it was made into a movie. It struck me as another example of the sort of tolerance-as-luxury that’s so common in stories of this type. The good guy white characters help the black characters out, and the message is, on balance, anti-racism and -discrimination, but the black people still exist only in relation to the white people, as objects for their glorification.

The Help tries and fails to set up Viola Davis as the main character. The voiceover narration is hers, and she has the first and last scenes. But in the middle she and her voiceover pretty much fade into the background to make way for the more marketable but less interesting white character, played by Emma Stone. Davis and especially Octavia Spencer both do spectacular jobs in their respective roles, but the movie isn’t really about them. It’s about how a white person took pity on them and helped them out, and how great that white person is for doing so.

I didn’t know much about Kathryn Stockett or her novel before I saw the movie. But I guessed she was white, and I was correct (her Wikipedia page does not have a picture, but actually goes out of its way to say she is “Caucasian”). It’s hard to see how we’re supposed to like the blandly annoying Emma Stone character when she’s clearly seeking out fame and cheap thrills and only incidentally helping people. Rent a flat above a shop, Ms Stockett.

(Incidentally, I’ve just found out that the aforementioned white woman is an author-insert character, which makes this a whole lot richer.)

The script is almost sickeningly safe. A man is shot by the KKK, and a woman is beaten by police officers, but it all happens in the distance with no followup. Black people in The Help are like nerds in an eighties high school movie. Or rather, black women are. Black men apparently don’t exist—except for background characters like the waiter, the gardener, the preacher, and the never-seen abusive husband. Morgan Freeman apparently had other engagements.

That’s not to say there isn’t some charm to the movie. It has funny moments and heartrending moments. But these shine through despite the cosmopolitan, just-too-accepting-for-my-own-good attitude of the (pretty much entirely white, I might add) filmmakers. Jessica Chastain, as the ostracized housewife who hires Spencer’s character when no one else will, is one of the few bearable white characters in the movie. Sissy Spacek is funny as the decrepit old matriarch, who isn’t exactly non-racist, but her openness about it is refreshing among all the polite and courtly racism. When the black maid gets revenge on Spacek’s witch of a daughter, she laughs her ass off, and it is pretty funny. And the little kids are cute.

So, The Help isn’t actually reprehensible, but that’s about the best you can say about it. It’s more accepting than Birth of a Nation, but it still doesn’t think of black people as people.

Up for:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Actress (Davis)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Spencer)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Chastain)