‘The Help’: A review

Not my own review. I will never watch The Help. I would have to be forced to, like on a ten hour flight across the Atlantic, the images of Emma Stone’s awful hair flitting across a screen inches away from my face because the passenger in front of me has so thoughtfully decided to recline his chair to a nice 160 degree angle. But hopefully that will never happen.

No, the review I’m talking about is Slate’s Dana Steven’s. I’ve always liked her. She shares a burning dislike of Natalie Portman–as do I. She likes to watch movies and write about them–as do I. On the first commonality alone, we could be best friends. The fact that she’s a prominent movie critic in a field dominated by awkward, middle-aged white men is just an extra bonus.

You should know, I’ve been obsessively reading reviews of The Help–it’s a habit I develop with movies I either really, really want to see or really, really don’t want to see–and I’ve begun to notice a similar pattern with all of them. Reviewers all give the obligatory spiel on the controversy surrounding the novel and then proceed to not comment on it. Well, some like David Denby from The New Yorker make frustrating comments like this: 

I wouldn’t quarrel (as some people have) with a white woman’s choice to write in the voices of black women or to say what black women of fifty years ago felt. A writer should be able to write in any voice she likes, and invented feelings may have a power and an authenticity that transcend literal accuracy. The only issue is whether the results are any good. To my ears, the voices in the book are sustained and affecting, and Stockett has strived to accurately capture Southern black speech.

He writes in that condescending tone of a white, usually liberal, person who’s ‘above all the controversy.’ Yes, all that really matters are if the results are any good. In a perfect, race-neutralized world. But wait–we don’t live in one. So yes, it does matter that a white woman is affecting the dialect of black speech just like it mattered when William Styron decided to write The Confessions of Nat Turner. No one’s denying the rights of white people to have imaginations, but people will and should comment on the manifestations of those imaginations. Because we don’t live in a colorblind society.

Anyway, back to Stevens. This is where the woman speaks truth: ‘The Help is a high-functioning tearjerker, but the catharsis it offers feels glib and insufficient, a Barbie Band-Aid on the still-raw wound of race relations in America.’ And there’s this:

If The Help contained more moments in which Skeeter’s good will wasn’t enough—in which, despite her best intentions, she blundered by unintentionally patronizing one of her interview subjects and had to confront her own received ideas about race—contemporary viewers might recognize a moment we’ve actually lived through, rather than being encouraged to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come.

And THEN this:

Then again, if glossily inspiring movies about African-American lives didn’t get made, would a different, more challenging kind get made in their place? Part of me wants to say that it’s fine for The Help, book and movie, to exist as a pop-cultural phenomenon. The story simplifies and reduces the civil rights movement, yes, but at least it’s about it. That’s not nothing given the insulated bubble in which most movies marketed at women take place (the blithely apolitical Eat Pray Love comes to mind). The Help raises the eternal question faced by minority groups who have to fight for space onscreen (that is to say, anyone but white men): Do we count ourselves glad to make any inroads we can, or do we demand rich, nuanced, subtle representations right from the start? I get the feeling that The Help‘s reception will be sharply divided by that question—a division which may in itself be this movie’s most valuable contribution.

So much truth! I know which side I’m on…

P.S. And for people that want to act like The Help isn’t about really about Skeeter, just look at the movie poster. Who’s sitting in the middle like the freakin’ face of reason? Even the copyrighted pictures that feature in most of the movie reviews I’ve read are of Emma Stone only, Slate being a notable exception.

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