Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why 'The Help' Needs Some Help

I read the book first. I didn't really like the book. The Help is just another story in the "white hero/ine saves some poor black folk from other, meaner white people" genre, and since that's a story Hollywood has been telling for years, it was a natural candidate for an industry that likes to stick with what it thinks it knows. 

I ignored the buzz and never considered seeing the film. From time to time, white people who know my proclivities would ask me what I thought of The Help and I was always honest, saying that, actually, I didn't like it. Imagine if a story with similar subject matter was written by a black writer, I would say, it would be a very different telling of the tale, don't you think? Now wouldn't that be a richer recounting of black people's experiences in our American South back in the day? It kinda makes you go "Hmmm...", doesn't it? A great moment is when they nod their head in agreement.

My brother-in-law, who, as a documentary film maker, is in the Writer's Guild, had a review copy of The Help with him when he came for a visit over the recent Holidaze, and we ended up putting it on. (He also had that Freud movie thing with Kiera Knightley but none of us felt like watching a movie with other people having sex - it seems that movie is full of such things - so we reluctantly defaulted to watching The Help.) It was awful - in fact, it was every bit as awful as the book, reveling in stereotypes both black and white. My jaw hurt from gritting my teeth by the time we got to the scene at the very end, where the black maid is teaching the dumb white blond mistress to fry chicken; I swear I was waiting for the genial white husband to come into the kitchen with a goddamn watermelon. And that he didn't is not a sign of progress.

Having said this, I too will be thrilled if either or both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer wins in her respective category for her work in  The Help, even if the thrill leaves me wanting to bite people, and not in a fun way.
"Nevertheless, we will all be cheering on both Viola Davis, who is not a stranger to Hollywood, and Octavia Spencer, who seems to be on a fairytale ride, for bringing depth and grace to their roles. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that their success with this film is a bit bittersweet. As Kola Boof, feminist and Egyptian-Sudanese-American novelist, noted in a tweet, “I Really *HATE**that Viola Davis will have to sit in the OSCAR audience with the term “The Help” written across her chest all night.” Word." Charing Ball, via
Word, indeed.