Now that the Academy Awards are over and Octavia Spencer grabbed an Oscar but Viola Davis didn’t. I thought it was time to reflect on the movie, “The Help”. When it first came out, I was determined not to see it. My whole attitude was, “Oh no, not another ‘ White-Person-Cures-Racism-With-The-Assistance-Of-A-Magical-Negro’ movie”. In my defense, it wasn’t something that I imagined. Just a couple of years before, Hollywood trotted out “The Blindside” and even gave Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for it. So yeah, I was a little bitter and not ready to see “The Help” at all.
Let’s face it, when it comes to portraying racial conflict, Hollywood rarely gets it right. Either its too heavy-handed (Crash), or brushed aside in favor of a more palatable plot point (The Long Walk Home). Even with black filmmakers at the helm, they often miss the mark. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shaking my head at the closing credits while asking myself, “What in the hell did I just watch?”
But I’m one of those people who feels like in order for me to hate something, I have to actually see it or read it. So the other night I rented “The Help”. I didn’t hate it. I really liked Octavia’s performance. I thought Viola Davis brought a quiet dignity to her role. That’s not to say that I didn’t have MAJOR problems with this movie. As good as the two leads were, they were still examples of characters that I had seen before in previous movies. The noble, quiet, suffering mammy type figure and her sassy sidekick. The thing is, those two were better than most of the white characters. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly was “Mean Girls Racist”, while Jessica’s Chastain’s Celia was a nothing more than a rejected character from “Steel Magnolias”. I won’t even get into Emma Stone’s Skeeter; the least interesting character of the whole bunch. However, there were still some funny lines and a couple of really touching moments.
The movie was a major success because it made a lot of people feel good. I guess that’s the point with movies like “The Help”. It’s supposed to make you feel good and not think about history. You’re supposed to cheer for Skeeter’s success and not dwell on the fifty eleventh injustice heaped on Abilene. You’re supposed to applaud Celia for sticking it out with her husband and not feel a tinge of bitterness that the only reward for Minnie is the opportunity to cook more chicken.
I still didn’t hate it. I was really rooting for Octavia and Viola to win. As problematic as the movie was, I still feel they deserve the awards due them. It’s not being hypocritical, it’s understanding that it’s the way the game is. If an African-American actress manages to break through and win a round from time to time, it’s okay to celebrate that. My hope is that in the future, both Octavia and Viola get great roles that defy stereotypes that tell our stories with clarity and truth.