After many months of impassioned discussion about the film, The Help finally opens in theaters this week!
Given all the conversation about the film within the African American community, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of you probably expect to be turned off by the film. There are many reasons for those reactions. From the vehemently rebuffed depictions of black maids in Civil Rights era southern USA in subservient roles to their racist white female employers. Other issues are the lament that this is yet another story supposedly about black people told by a Caucasian and from their point of view. Also, the rejection of the black maids’ inability to collect and revolt.
But for those who do end up seeing it, expecting to be incensed by it, you might find it easier to dismiss the film, given just how frivolous and shallow it is. Although I’d say I really don’t think the producers of the film were particularly interested in making something momentous or transgressive. I believe they call it “entertainment.”
But for a book of its nature and origins, I appreciated the author’s attempts to give these characters, the black maids specifically, their own lives and thoughts. They may not be fully realized characters, but they aren’t 2-dimensional cardboard cut-outs either.
As an aside, I will also add that the depiction of the class/race struggle on screen is most often framed as one that exists almost solely between men; rarely is that tale reflected from the perspective of women protagonists/antagonists. So this was a welcomed jolt of estrogen. It’s just unfortunate that it comes in this particularly blithe package, especially when one considers the dearth of films in cinema history that have closely examined the tenuously symbiotic, if strained relationship between black maids and their white employers, particularly those told from the maid’s point of view, which goes back centuries and crosses borders.
This is a film that many have praised for its performances above all else. It represents what will be the best possibility of an Oscar nomination for a black actor/actress this year, in Viola Davis and/or Octavia Spencer. I won’t be surprised to see both of them nominated, and one of them walking away with the trophy in the Best Supporting Actress category – Viola Davis especially.
I can’t say that I won’t be happy for her if that were to happen; she does a decent job with the material she’s given. However, one thing that struck me about her performance was just how caged she seemed. For all her ability, Viola Davis isn’t meant to play subdued, subservient roles like this. Her presence demands she be out, front and center, bold, brash, dangerous and leading; not meek and cowering. She plays a similar kind of character here that she played in Doubt, which got her Academy Award attention for the first time, via a nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category. I expect she’ll be blessed with the same honor next year, and may even win this time, whether we like it or not.
In closing, I’m sure many will get exactly what they want from the experience of seeing the film – entertainment; as long as you’re willing to overlook certain undesirable memes. You have to ask yourself what exactly you’re expecting to get out of the film, and go into it fully aware of those expectations; they just might be met.
The Help is now in theaters.
Tambay Obenson is editor of Shadow And Act on the indieWIRE Network at blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact