Oscarbation: Lord, Help Us!

01/13/2012 9:47 AM |

This is where my heart should be.
  • “This is where my heart should be.”

Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are paying someone to raise their kids. This week they wish they’d watched Richard Lester’s Help! instead of Tate Taylor’s The Help.

STEWART:
Hey, Ben, all black women are wonderful and all white women are terrible—except for those who went to college, that is! Is that what you took away from The Help? If I were a woman, Ben, I would have left the theater feeling so much better about myself, whether black or white. (Not as a man, though. The movie’s tangential males are either horny, boorish, violent, casually misogynistic, casually racist, and/or uxorious lily-livers.) For any black women in the audience, they can identify, or at least sympathize, with the film’s wise, quasi-magical black women: so put upon by society, but so strong, so courageous! For the whites, they can take comfort in the fact that the white people (like them!) aren’t at all so, so, so racist and mean anymore. Good for you, white people! Right? Well, except, aren’t some women still treated similarly to the way those in The Help are? I mean, ok, state surgeon generals don’t force Caribbean nannies to use separate bathrooms. But only a quarter of Park Slope nannies get paid overtime, for example, even though that’s the very first right in New York state’s recently adopted Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. What I mean is that I wish director Tate Taylor had acknowledged that there’s still plenty of hired help all over America, and that though they’re not treated monstrously, they can be treated less than ideally. Instead, he depicts it all as problems of the past since rectified. I also wish he hadn’t portrayed black women as good because they’re good mothers, and white women as bad because they’re bad mothers. (Though he allows that unmarried women could go to college and become writers, so they can tell the stories of mothers.) How did you feel about the movie’s handling of race, Ben?

SUTTON:
It struck me, apparently much the same way it did you, as insanely two-toned. Every black character is unimpeachably good, every white character (bleeding-heart journalist heroine notwithstanding) is irredeemably bad, and if anyone appears to be bucking the trend it’s only because she’s trying to appease an angry white person or sympathetic black person. That all this self-congratulatory liberal-baiting was handled with such an irreverently comic tone—the Stepfordian super-bitch Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the unhinged manic-depressive Celia (Jessica Chastain), the mousy sidekick Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly)—didn’t help The Help (or, for that matter, the help). The film’s portrayal of Mississippi weather patterns and Jackson’s urban design is similarly simplistic in its symbolism. Henry, did you notice how, when Aibileen (Viola Davis) runs home after being kicked off the bus, her house is about a hundred feet on the other (wrong) side of the train tracks? Or how whenever the going got tough there was a tornado or storm, but when things got sunny the weather did likewise? I guess life was simpler back then, Henry.

STEWART:
Simpler, maybe, but worse, Ben—simpler in its terribleness! It’s notable, if not exactly strange, that now seven prestige movies into this awards season we have seen just one movie set in the present—and it took place in inherently fantastical Hawaii! (The next one we see, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is contemporary, but it’s also been underperforming at the box-office. Maybe there’s a correlation there?) It’s not like this is the first time movies not set in the here-and-now have dominated the season; remember in the year after 9/11 how every Best Picture nominee was set in the past, if it were set in the real world at all? So it’s not terribly surprising that the Great Recession has driven audiences (or at least taste-predicting producers) away from the hardscrabble realities of the present to the tribulations of the past, at which we can scoff for their absurdity (ugh, such blatant racism!) but which also create heroes, whose strength gives us something to admire. By “heroes,” of course, I mean female heroes, and by “us,” I mean the women in the audience. (By “the women in the audience,” I just mean the audience). Those courageous characters are just one of the ways the movie panders to its intended audience. There are also jokes about old ladies and soap operas, about wigs, and then lachrymose moments about mothers and daughters and pride and love. Any other ways the movie shamelessly caters to the stereotypical tastes of women, Ben?

SUTTON:
Well, Henry, if by “caters to” you mean prepares food for then yes! The Help being a movie about domestic activities, the mean white women who are terrible at them and the kind black women they hire to do most of them in their place, there are many, many scenes and entire subplots that revolve around food. Like another racially problematic prestige pic, Precious, this film has an insatiable appetite for fried chicken. Most egregious of the culinary signifier of Southern blackness’s many cameos is the scene in which sassy sidekick Minny (Octavia Spencer), after deciding to help Skeeter (Emma Stone) with the book project that will eventually become The Help, sits down to tell her stories and begins by biting emphatically into a drumstick. Minny also perpetrates the film’s grossest food gag, right out of Titus Andronicus if it were rewritten by a scatological Shakespeare satirist. Food functions as both a symbol of black women’s oppression—in fact all these women’s oppression, though the film’s many evil female characters kind of undo the feminist undertones of Skeeter’s careerism—and a weapon with which they can threaten and undermine their employers. But in the end it’s not the awesome fried chicken, paprika-sprinkled deviled eggs or secret ingredient-augmented chocolate cake that saves The Help‘s black women, it’s a white woman. Henry, what’s up with this movie’s fantasy of white awesomeness?

STEWART:
Right, Ben? It’s irksome that the movie’s black characters only achieve anything because a white lady who went to college helps them—in fact, you could easily say she exploits them, and after she publishes her book and effectively ruins their lives she ditches them for a job in New York. She totally stepping-stoned them! (The filmmakers cover over this with some unconvincing “you get yours!” encouragement and “we’ll be fine!” assurances. Even if we buy that the two main maids have happy or sort-of happy endings, what about the other dozen or so? After the Deep Throat-length protections they went through, everything just worked out fine for everybody?) You could say, structurally, that it’s an old-fashioned Hollywood problem: stories about black people often centrally involve a white person; I’d guess it’s because there are more white people to buy movie tickets in America, and because most white people won’t go to a movie exclusively about black people—like boys won’t go to movies about girls, right? That’s just one of the movie’s many structural cliches; did you notice that the clique of mean white ladies were total Heathers/Mean Girls, just in a different milieu? The powerful leader, the sycophantic number two, the mousy sidekicks. The filmmakers have a sophisticated sense of how to manipulate media to their own box-office advantage. But what about the way the movie itself grapples with the world of media? Did you think it was as savvy?

SUTTON:
Not exactly savvy, Henry, no, although certainly in keeping with The Help‘s pervasive naïveté and aptitude for manipulation. The film does a good job, for instance, of using scenes with characters gathered around televisions (in white homes) and radios (in black homes) to situate their conflicts within the contemporaneous Civil Rights movement from which the town of Jackson seems generally to be quite sheltered. The uncomfortable proximity to these events that radio and television convey—two such scenes end with families being ushered away from the broadcasting device for fear of the upsetting news’s propagation—is juxtaposed with the anomie and dishonesty that writing affords. For instance, in an opening scene Skeeter walks into the local paper’s office and gets a job on the spot—already suspicious—that involves writing a housekeeping advice column in the name of a columnist who likely never existed. After this column leads her to consult her friends’ black maids, thereby precipitating the book project that became The Help, Skeeter’s New York-based editor Elain Stein (Mary Teenburgen) presses her for more and juicier stories, so much so that she briefly contemplates fabricating interviews. However subtly The Help, a film adapted from a book whose making is its subject, seems to distrust the written word. Perhaps that’s why it falls back so hard on the Hollywood conventions that make it so helplessly hokey.

Follow Henry Stewart and Ben Sutton on Twitter at @henrycstewart and @LMagArt, and follow @LMagFilm for all your film news.