Critic’s Notebook | How Movies Like “The Help” Reinforce Hollywood’s Race Problem

Critic's Notebook | How Movies Like "The Help" Reinforce Hollywood's Race Problem
Critic's Notebook | How Movies Like "The Help" Reinforce Hollywood's Race Problem

Nobody should be surprised by the dearth of minorities in contemporary media. On the surface, it’s a boring issue: Whether or not the stories of gay, black or women characters make their way into movies and television only becomes a central issue if specific industrial forces continue to keep them out. If a truly progressive society is color blind, then everyone should let the chips fall and assume equal opportunity remains in flux. The reality is a lot more complicated, as demonstrated this week by the release of the antiquated civil rights drama “The Help.”

Based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 best-seller, Tate Taylor’s nearly two-and-a-half hour period piece follows young college graduate Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer in the early 1960’s driven to dictate the marginalized experiences of the black maids in her community. These include Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a wise middle-aged woman whose son’s death leads her to take a maternal approach with the children she’s hired to raise, and the loudmouthed Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), whose colorful personality often causes her white employers to show her the door.

Eugenia’s decision to begin collecting the maids’ testimonies stems from her frustrations after her mother (Allison Janney) abruptly fires the woman who had raised Eugenia from infancy. It would have been a noble project in its time, which “The Help” inhabits with no less period specificity than an episode of “Mad Men.” Eugenia’s attempt to gain the trust of her subjects while tolerating the overtly racist stances of her neighbors–led by the eerie Stepford wife Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard)–give the movie an engaging arc with a predictably satisfying emotional payoff. But the very existence of this movie, prominently distributed by Disney and marketed as an important, heartfelt experience, symbolizes a rather backward state of affairs.

By positioning the struggles of African Americans during a period of great social upheaval as subservient to a charming white savior, “The Help” suffers from being markedly dated. That’s not meant as a knock to the talented Emma Stone, whose understandably likable screen presence makes the role at least tolerable. However, the book’s virtual overnight transition to the big screen (the movie rights were purchased shortly after its release) reflects the industry’s continuing inability to construct African American stories without a vanilla filter. It’s a cousin to the way “Schindler’s List” tells the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of a non-Jew to widen its accessibility.

In the 1970’s, the black community essentially gave up on Hollywood and turned to the blaxploitation genre for inspiration. Although no longer around in exploitation form, that separate industry continues to this day, particularly through the isolated appeal of Tyler Perry. Meanwhile, breakout talents like “Medicine for Melancholy” director Barry Jenkins find themselves prematurely hoisted onto a pedestal, forced to prove that new black stories can work well without necessarily referencing the great strides of the civil rights movement. (After “Melancholy” became an indie sleeper hit, Jenkins was courted for a much bigger project by…Disney.)

Ironically, the best sequence in “The Help” does involve a historical event: The 1963 assassination of Medger Evers, whose untimely death at the hands of a white supremacist leads the terrified Aibileen to go scrambling for cover. Suddenly, “The Help” shifts focus from Eugenia’s feel-good interview project to a much quiet, suspenseful evocation of an oppressed existence.

But then, just as quickly as it changes gears, “The Help” returns to its cheery pose, playfully engaging with its era in air quotes. “You better write this fast,” Eugenia’s editor tells her, “before this whole civil rights thing blows over.” That gag line is aimed squarely at the audience. As a wink, it’s a relatively tame throwaway bit. But it inadvertently emphasizes the movie’s generally carefree attitude. That’s not a problem for many audiences, who will find that “The Help” plays well enough in basic crowdpleaser terms, but it does help reinforce the idea that movies like this have lost their relevance.

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