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August 2011

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Movie Review: The Help — Does it Downplay Racism?

Written by , Posted in General

I saw ‘The Help,’ and I loved it. Then I told a friend, who quickly explained the controversy surrounding the film. Upon reading the reviews, and then revisiting my memory of the film, my opinion has changed — but not by much. So what is all the fuss about exactly? To quote Roger Ebert, it’s a “story that deals with pain but doesn’t care to be that painful.”

The film is based on Kathryn Scott’s novel, and it follows Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who are maids in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 60’s. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is a recent college graduate and aspiring writer, who hopes to expose the way “the help” is treated in Mississippi by publishing a book with first-hand accounts. To accomplish this, she must interview the maids in town, who take the huge risk of getting caught.

The movie is gaining so much criticism primarily because it downplays racism. Most of the racism in the film involves using segregated bathrooms and verbal disrespect. In fact, there are only two scenes of violence throughout the entire movie. The first involves a verbal recounting of Aibileen’s son who was murdered, and the second involves a maid who stole a ring from her boss so that she could pay for her child’s education. When she’s arrested for the theft, a police officer beats her, but the camera cuts away before you see the completed act. So is this film just a Disney version of racism?

It’s no secret that Hollywood is financially driven, and an increase in violence leads to a decrease in ticket sales. Unfettered truth is difficult to watch on screen. For example, I might be the only Jewish person that hasn’t seen ‘Schindler’s List.’ Why? Because I can’t handle it, and because movies are a safe haven for me that I use to take me out of reality — not to smack me in the face with it. One critic suggested that when Aibileen recounts her son’s murder, there should have been flashbacks of the act. I disagree. There’s a way to imply violence without physically showing it. Remember the famous shower scene in ‘Psycho?’ Hitchcock implied the stabbing without showing the act itself. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem with this film is not that the violence isn’t shown, it’s that it’s barely even discussed. It borders on rewriting history, and there’s a danger in that.

Though there are certainly problems with watered-down recounting of history, the film is still one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve watched in a long time. Emma Stone is proving to be a formidable acting force, having quickly tossed away her high-school-girl persona from ‘Easy A’ into much more demanding roles. And Viola Davis is outstanding. Her relationship with the young white girl she cares for had me in tears throughout most of the film. It’s worth watching — flaws and all. OVERALL RATING: 4/5 DISHES

  • urban legend

    “The problem with this film is not that the violence isn’t shown, it’s
    that it’s barely even discussed. It borders on rewriting history, and
    there’s a danger in that.”

    This is an absurd statement. The threat of violence from the white power structure — the impact of the murder of Medgar Evers, the nasty glances from white townspeople, the death of Aibilene’s son, the woman beaten by a white cop for stealing a ring — permeates the entire story, book and movie, to its core. Without that threat, there is no story, and the people who love it understand that perfectly well. Hilly is simply the “refined class” maniufestation of that threat of violence.

    Anyone who has paid any attention to Southern history (and sees its resonance in Northern history as well) understands a context for disproportionate black male violence. There is nothing inherently disrespectful of black males generally in those specific depictions, either.

    I don’t think the critics of “The Help” from a racial standpoint quite understand the term, “circular firing squad.”