There is always an audience for hokum. Whether it’s an inspirational teacher story where the teacher only has one class, or a fight for justice where the lawyer breaks down in tears, the fantasy version of reality is always a sure bet for good box office returns. Nowhere is this more the case than in movies about the civil rights movement in America. According to Hollywood, there was such a tiny minority of actual bigots in the South, it’s a wonder racial segregation got started in the first place. As the new adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help makes clear: white folks were just itching to do right by African Americans in the 1960s. The only mystery is why black people didn’t ask white folks for help earlier…
Unless it was because white folks were a bunch of institutionalised racists, who didn’t start to offer help until black folks demanded it for themselves. In the revisionist history presented by The Help, the civil rights movement forms the backdrop for a nerdy white woman’s story. Instead of Mrs Malcolm X, this is Cinderella: where the white girl dreams of being asked to New York…and the black servants are left to sweep up. A white wannabe journalist decides to write a book exposing how shitty it is to be a black housemaid in Mississippi in the 1960s. Two black servants agree to help her. Despite the fact this book means certain death for any black contributor, the white girl’s (career) struggle is made to seem equally heroic.
This movie is a slice of baloney about as thick as a kudzu vine. It’s a pantywaist version of oppression. About the only real thing in it are the social coteries. Apart from that, it’s the kind of movie where Emma Stone (with legs up to her eyeballs) plays a nerd; where Viola Davis’s maid might as well be Martin Luther King; and where, if Octavia Spencer was any sassier, she’d have her own sitcom. Imagine Mississippi Burning with all the violence taken out; where instead of being killed, the lead racist gets a cold sore on her lip. There’s literally no scene too cornball for The Help. Nothing sad happens without lachrymose music. When the housemaid who raised Emma Stone gets fired, the director makes sure we follow her home, to trace her finger, sadly, along the wall; where she marked Emma’s height (and the supermodel length of her legs) at different ages.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays the villain of the piece: a rich bitch southern Medusa who spits poison at everyone. She’s more an evil sorority queen than a member of the KKK, but she’s as close as this movie wants to get to the reality of white racist attitudes. Howard is not only a bigot; she’s also a bad mother and a rotten daughter. If she wore a mask, she’d be a super-villain. The movie takes special delight in the scene where Octavia Spencer tricks Howard into eating a pie laced with shit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the critique of racism in that action, but it wouldn’t hurt for the movie to be a bit more subtle. Like a lot of things about The Help, there’s a very predictable, self-congratulatory air about Bryce’s downfall.
This film wants you to feel good about yourself…especially if you’re white. Its point of view is nostalgic, as much as enlightened; not nostalgic for “coloured” bathrooms, or segregation on public transport, but nostalgic about mint juleps, and fey newspaper editors who probably live with their mommas. Author Kathryn Stockett is the latest in a long line of Harper Lee acolytes, and To Kill a Mockingbird still sets the standard for how to approach prejudice if you come from a Confederate state. The key word here is: tiptoes. Racism should be limited to a few bad apples (i.e. mean folks, who are racist as an extension of their meanness, as opposed to being racist because their society encourages them to hate black people).
Audiences love this kind of hogwash because it gets them off the hook. It makes civil rights seem like a foregone conclusion. So much so, you might be left wondering why Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King got shot; or what Malcolm X and the Black Panthers seemed so crabby about; or why everyone was so flagrantly racist on TV up until the 1980s. Sadly, the truth is: nice genteel ladies, like Kathryn Stockett, and the sweet young thing played by Emma Stone, didn’t usher in civil rights for African Americans. It’s all very well to have Emma write a book and embarrass her home town, but the real change was about visibility. This movie should be about two black women. It’s kinda racist to cast them in support.