….. And now for something totally different. There’s nothing remotely natural about what happens in The Help. It’s the sort of picture that really harkens back to race films of ‘ole. It makes no attempt to take the race issue in a modern direction, as something like Crash (2004) did. It falls more in line with something like Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. In fact, it’s a bit more successful in illustrating a clearer narrative path for everyone involved, but like that picture, The Help is no less traditional (or obsolete) in its observations of race. Case in point: in a year that has valued the nostalgic with The Artist, Hugo, War Horse and Midnight in Paris, it makes sense that The Help – a film that could have been in the 80s - is a Best Picture nominee.
Being a throwback isn’t necessarily a positive though. There needs to be a certain level of nuance to taking an old relic of a concept or theme and reinvigorating it with a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, there’s simply not much to The Help beyond its superficial qualities. I’m going to go ahead and ignore the racial dichotomy the film projects, largely because they’re so cut and dry. It’s almost too obvious. There’s the one overt racist and there’s the one who’s not. All the other white women sort of fit in between and are dictated by where the narrative flows. What is of particular interest is the gender issue at stake here. Black and white women inhabit the narrative lens, though the absence of white and especially black men is of interest. First, the film is populated by several white male characters, though most have limited speaking parts and seem to exist in a state of neutrality – whatever social injustice at hand is best handled by women. Secondly, there are very few black male figures in the narrative and the only one who has any bit of narrative impact is abusive.
Despite The Help’s limited sense of racial sensitivity, the picture is almost excusable for Tate Taylor’s insipid direction. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s work in The Color Purple, Taylor doesn’t seem to be placing any reverence in the material here – whether it’s his own ineptitude behind the camera or the astute awareness that the script is mediocre, his lethargic method of filmmaking fashions a dull film. And while Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis (and Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard) all give strong performances, it’s of limited consequence when they’re dealing with such shitty material. And I say shit, because well, there is an abnormal fixation with fecal matter that guides the picture. When shit is a more prominent aspect of a picture meant to deal with race, then it’s pretty obvious there’s a problem.