Well, it’s that time of year again. The Oscar nominations came out a week or so ago, and much like last year, I’m beginning my attempts to watch every single film that was nominated for Best Picture. All of the films that received Oscar nominations in these categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Original/Adapted Screenplay, Best Animated Film, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film) along with similar awards from the BAFTA’s, Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards have been placed in the master list for my blog which has been randomized again to take into account this new slew of films. However, the films nominated for Best Picture are so culturally relevant that I try to watch all of them as soon as I get the chance so they take precedence over everything else on my blog. I did the same thing last year and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of films nominated for Best Picture (even when I thought about half of the fim’s nominated for Best Picture were better than The King’s Speech, particularly The Social Network and Winter’s Bone) since the lowest score was a B (The Fighter) and every other of the 9 films scored a B+ or higher. Well, 2011’s crops of film isn’t off to as good a start as The Help is the worst film I’ve watched nominated for Best Picture since The Blind Side, and the only reason it isn’t a completely racist (I’ll explain what I mean there in a second) failure is the strength of its many exceptional performances.
The Help, based off the 2009 fictional (I can’t begin to express how frustrated I was when I found out this wasn’t real) novel of the same name, is the story of aspiring author Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Superbad‘s Emma Stone), who has just finished college and moved back to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., to write for the local newspaper during the 1960s. Assigned to the housekeeping column, Skeeter seeks cleaning advice from the maid, Aibileen Clark (a phenomenal Viola Davis), of a family friend. Witnessing the shame and injustice that these maids are regularly forced to endure (the last straw being her former friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) trying to push through a law requiring separate bathrooms for black housekeepers in everyone’s home), Skeeter decides to write a book from the point of view of the help. The first nanny she’s able to convince to come to her side is the stoic Aibileen, but when local maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is fired for using Hilly’s mother’s bathroom (rather than go outside during a fierce thunderstorm that claimed over a dozen lives) and accused of thievery so she can’t gain any future employment, it leads to a revolution of local help agreeing to help Skeeter write her book and shed light on the racial injustices occurring in this town.
I’m shortly about to tear this film a whole new asshole, but before I begin ruthlessly eviscerating it, I do want to talk about the one shining light of the film which was its absurdly good ensemble cast. I mostly think of Emma Stone as a comic actress, but she handled dramatic material like an old pro and she was what held the film together. Despite the title of the film, Skeeter was the main character, not “the help,” and Emma aptly carried the weight of this story on her shoulders. Viola Davis has had some smaller parts (Doubt), but this will be the film that likely wins her an Oscar (even if I’d rather see it go to Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and shoots her to widestream attention. She deserves it. She imbued Aibileen with such nuanced anger and pain in an intensely quiet role that would have been far too easy to overplay. She showed the perfect amount of restraint. Jessica Chastain has been everywhere this year, and she was a scene-stealer as local white-trash Celia Foote who was the only person to hire Minnie after Hilly fired her. There was just an innocence and naivete in her very natural performance. Octavia Spencer was also excellent as the fiery and sardonic Minnie. Playing the villain of the film, Bryce Dallas Howard proved that her career is more than nepotism and she was the perfect embodiment of southern belle racism.
Let’s start off with the film’s biggest problem. Much like Driving Miss Daisy and Dances with Wolves, this film is an incredibly offensive, condescending, and exploitative bit of revisionist history made to make modern bourgeois liberals feel better about themselves. This is not a film about African-Americans overcoming injustice and hardships. It’s about a white woman who helped bring the plight of black maids to the public eye. Except, it isn’t even a true story. It’s completely made up. None of this really happened (except the details of being a maid which the author allegedly stole from someone and never compensated them for). Modern audiences are meant to watch this and congratulate themselves on how far we’ve come since segregation. I think it was Stanley Kubrick who said that Schindler’s List wasn’t a film about the Holocaust (i.e. genocide and the attempted extermination of the Jewish race). It was a film about a thousand Jews that didn’t die and the man who tried to help them. This film doesn’t deal with race relations in any relevant way (unlike say a good Spike Lee or John Singleton film). Instead, it tries to create a white hero that modern audiences can go back and cheer for when in reality, nothing like what Skeeter was doing happened, and the realities of being a maid during these days was much worse (sexual assault was a large problem) than this film portrayed. If this film were a true story or had it come out during the 60’s, maybe it would have been more relevant. Instead, it simply contributes to the list of films that want to paint our nation’s unforgivable past in a more acceptable light so that we can feel better about what epic assholes we used to be as a nation.
It doesn’t help the film’s cause that it was also yawn-inducingly boring and that most of the “emotional” moments simply didn’t ring true (Aibileen’s scenes the notable exception thanks solely to Davis’s acting). People can be forgiven for enjoying this film if they think it’s a true story (which you would have to think because the film really wants you to feel that it’s real), but if you know that none of this really happened, it should be impossible to move past how simply condescending and unintentionally racist this film turned out. This does not shed a good light on the crop of films that I’ll be reviewing from 2011 for the upcoming Oscars. The next one that I’ll view is a new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris! So that should hopefully get us back on the right track. Don’t just accept this film at face level because you’ll allow yourself to fall for the image it wants to project. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see just how flawed The Help truly is.
Final Score: C