“The Help” — could there be more cliches in one movie? *UPDATED*

Subject to a very few exceptions, I don’t see movies during their first runs in movie theaters.  Instead, I see them when they’re released on DVD.  That’s why I’m only watching The Help now. (The Help is a movie about black maids in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi.)

Before I go any further with this post, I have to tell you that I was predisposed to dislike it.  To begin with, I think most of what comes out of Hollywood nowadays is poorly done, insofar as movies are charmless and heavy-handed.  I also looked at the few big names in the cast (Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, and Mary Steenburgen) and assumed that the movie’s viewpoint would be hostile to some aspect of America.  Lastly, I knew that a movie about black and white relations in the 1950s would be in its approach . . . well . . . black and white.

So far, I’ve struggled through the first half of The Help and am bored out of my mind.  It’s like being buried knee deep in cliches.  In a way, the movie is hampered by a historical truth, which is that the Jim Crow South, especially deep in Mississippi, was a miserable hellhole for blacks.  Southern whites had a single-minded focus, which was to maintain a status quo that saw blacks at the bottom of the pecking order.  Blacks were dehumanized, physically abused, legally insulted, and whatever else the Dixie-crats could think of to ensure that they didn’t have to look black people in the eye and see their common humanity.

These historic truisms handicap the movie, because the only way it can deal with them is to make the whites horrifically bad and the blacks angelically good.  In other words, the characters are one-dimensional and quite boring.  The lead “good” white girl is blandly good; while the lead “bad” white girl is a caricature of evil, with a touch of Hannah Arendt-style banality thrown in.  The black women are plaster saints, whether heroically working to send their kids to college, heroically suffering after a child dies, or heroically using an indoor bathroom. The single “outsider” is a New York Jewish female editor, who sees the Civil Rights movement as something akin to a fashion trend.  (In that, the movie does a disservice to the many Northern Jews who were fanatic in their devotion to the Civil Rights cause.  Just as the blacks did, they believed defeating Jim Crow was akin to the Jews’ struggle to escape Pharaoh’s clutches, and that belief added a spiritual element to their approach that overrode mere faddism.)

There’s no room for nuance in this movie.  It’s a polemic, pure and simple and, as such, artistically dull.  That could change in the movie’s second half, which I’ll watch tonight, but I’m not optimistic.

There is one thing about the movie that does stand out — there are no men.  So far, one black man has appeared off screen (we hear only his voice) to beat his wife; while another black man has given a short sermon about Moses’ courage.  The white men are equally invisible and ineffectual.  They are either hen-pecked or absent altogether.  I’ve just reached the point in the movie where the lead white girl (whose name I can’t remember because she’s such a nonentity) charms a blind date by being rude to him.  Or at least, I think that’s what she did.  One other problem I have with the movie is that the actors got a little carried away with their down-home Southern accents.  As often as not, they’re unintelligible.  It may add an air of authenticity to the movie, but it makes it hard to follow.

I’ll get back to you tomorrow about part 2 of the movie.  So far, I’m not impressed.

UPDATE:  Last night turned into homework central, so my TV watching was limited to catching up with Jay Leno doing “Headlines.”  Part II of The Help will have to wait another day.

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  • muleheadedfarmer

    I’ve been reading Bookworm for over a year I am disappointed in your view of MS people. The perception of our treatment of blacks is simply untrue. Most people in MS are not racist. We have more black elected politicians than any other state. And the “Help” would be employed by nice people who would not mistreat the “Help”, they are family/every day employees.
    The seemly common view of the people of Mississippi as redneck racist resembles our view of Californians as a bunch of stoned hippies.

    • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

      Muleheadedfarmer: I certainly didn’t mean to insult Mississippi. I was truly under the impression that, during the Jm Crow era, it really was one of the intensely segregationist states. As for modern-day Mississippi, I have nothing but respect for the state.

  • stanley

    In my view as a californican we are a bunch of stoned hippies. Don’t you follow the news out here? So maybe you in MS are a bunch of rednecks :)

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    In other words, stanley, we’re all a bunch of walking cliches? Oy, vey. I guess, as a Marin native, I should hide my peacock feather collection. (For those of you under, well, under a certain age, back in the 1970s, Marin County had a reputation for decadence that involved cocaine, hot tubs, and peacock feathers.  That’s the Marin cliche.)

  • rick9911

    Notice that every white person smokes. Not one black person smoked in any setting even their own homes. And this in 1950s America. Of course the audience was 2011 America and smoking is generally considered a bad habit. Hollywood lies to try to tell a truth. I seldom watch movies anymore, oh, excuse me, films.

  • Spartacus

    Don’t take this the wrong way, Mrs. Bookworm, but it totally cracks me up that you can get away with writing a half-movie review. De l’audace, encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace!

    Were you writing for the SF Commichal or something, you would be required to watch a large number of bad movies each month, from beginning to end, with toothpicks to hold your eyes open in many cases. And being diligent, you would of course do it. After each one, you would wearily bang out yet another tired and formulaic review of yet another tired and formulaic movie, bowing appropriately to the gods of PC and staying carefully within their prescribed boundaries and expected themes.

    Instead, we get something with enough flavor to help us save two hours of our lives after you’ve only reached the halfway mark. And we’re happy to read it! Vive la blog!

  • expat

    I would be interested in your take on how The Help contrasts with To Kill a Mockingbird. I found the portrayal of Calpurnia complex and realistic. She knew that she had had opportunities that other blacks hadn’t  and when she was with them she spoke as they did. I found her to be a very strong principled person, not a cliche. In fact, the reason I love TKAM is because it shows individuals coping with a terrible situation where people often had to choose between bad and less bad.
    It would also be interesting to see a modern version of The Help in which the servants are Hispanic and the employers are Marin or Upper West Side liberals.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar


     This is for people that don’t understand the power of visual novels. You can download the client, without cost. Try it out to see what real creativity in the media is.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Once someone is hooked on Japanese media and culture, American Hollywood loses most, though not all, of the peer pressure conformity and influence. This goes double against the younger generation. Most people try fighting power with power. But often times a more efficient way of doing things is to pull when they push, and push when they pull. Find a way to circumnavigate the block the Gatekeepers of American media put on information and freedom.

  • Danny Lemieux

    I find it interesting that the Left has resorted to making movies dedicated to reigniting and distorting social battles that took more-than 1/2 century ago in order to put themselves in a positive light, or movies dedicated to smearing conservative icons and politicians that threaten their self regard (Nixon, Thatcher, Palin). It’s clear to me that they are losing their narrative thread.

    What a sorry bunch of have-been losers! 

    It just confirms that there is nothing social about socialism, there is nothing democratic about Democrats and there certainly isn’t anything progressive about Progressives. 

  • heather

    I have stubbornly resisted reading the book, or seeing this movie, because I have suspected that it would be just as you have described.  You’re the first person to confirm my suspicions.  Can’t wait to hear Part II of your review.

    Also, it bugs me when people hardly pick up a book all year, but then rush out and buy one just because everyone else is reading it and it’s raved over on the morning talk shows.  

  • Old Buckeye

    Thanks, Bookworm, you’ve articulated how I felt about the book (I don’t watch movies) but couldn’t express. Cliches, stereotypes, fables, distortions: the stuff of Hollywood and for much of what passes for “literature” these days.

  • roylofquist

    Personal experience time.

    In 1955 my family, from the Boston area, visited distant cousins at their farm in rural South Carolina – outhouse, well, the whole works. There were all the trappings of Jim Crow – tenant farmers, separate schools, drinking fountains and restaurants. The children’s playmates were negros (official US Gubmint term). We tagged along on their adventures – swimming, fishing, etc.  Their drawls were so strong that we understood less than half of what they were saying but everybody had a good time. In town (I’m being generous in that description) whites and blacks were friendly and respectful to one another. It was just a way of life in a one-party system, observe the formalities to keep the politicians off your back and get on with living.

    Being from Boston were were well familiar with that kind of situation – political corruption writ large. You dealt with it. The horrors of Jim Crow are mainly myths created by activists, albeit in a good cause. Most of the history we are familiar with is similarly tainted. After all, writers are inherently passionate advocates – even our beloved Book.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Jim Crow was the story of Democrats controlling the south with fear and intimidation, always going on about blacks stealing white women and how many horrible things would happen if blacks were treated equally as whites. Same as in Chicago with Sharpton and Jacka**son. Same with obama in the US White House.


  • Danny Lemieux

    Somehow, during this awful time of Jim Crow when no black person stood a chance, Condoleeza Rice was raised in a highly educated, solidly middle class black family in Birmingham, Alabama, where she got a first class education and rose to become Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to the United States. 

    Kind of goes against the Hollywood, doesn’t it? 

  • jj

    Have to be a little careful with that word “cliche.”  It means nothing more than a received truth, a stereotype – something so plainly apparent there’s no need to restate it, and doing so is trite.  It’s a cliche to note that the sun rises in the east, but, you know – the damn thing does rise in the east, doesn’t it?  Something that qualifies as a cliche is more often true than not, which – to me, anyway – makes it hard to put the arm on something for being one.  Sky’s blue.  Yes.  Grass is green.  Yup.  Stars come out at night.  Uh-huh.  Blacks were treated badly in the Jim Crow south.  No?  Really?
    Sadly, a lot of what transpired in the south for a long time qualifies pretty well as your basic cliche.  Most of us here are old enough – well, some of us are, anyway – to perfectly clearly recall (those of us who spent time in the south, that is) separate drinking fountains, separate bathrooms, separate entrances to buildings both private and public, and the back of the bus.  Maids raised the kids, cleaned the houses, and cooked – yeah, they did.  Those things existed, they were everywhere, and pretending they didn’t and weren’t is just BS – sorry.
    The issues weren’t just in the south, either.  On the farm, on Long Island in New York State, my father always let the Hill family hunt.  They hunted for rabbits, squirrels, pheasants.  Every damn year Gilbert Hill or one of his sons would be brought up to the house in the back of a police car, so the cop could check if it was really okay for this black guy to be walking around the property with a loaded shotgun.  This would happen several times while the cops cycled through their shifts, until eventually, after about a week or ten days they all knew it was okay.  And they had to reminded every goddam year – by next hunting season they’d have forgotten, and would be picking up the Hills again.  Were the cops a cliche?  You bet, and they were absolutely true to it.  And the other half of the deal was also a cliche: Gilbert and his sons Milton and Sonny were absolutely subservient – it was the safest way to be.  They never said an unfriendly word to any of the cops who took away the gun and ordered them into the car.  They weren’t from the south, New York is not the south – but they were well-trained, and they knew their roles, and they got into the cop cars without a peep, or a physical motion of protest.  (The only way it finally stopped – which it didn’t until the 70s, was when Nassau County stopped rotating cops around, and we got to have the same guys, who actually knew the neighborhood.  They managed to remember Milton and Sonny from year to year – Gilbert had gotten old and retired from the field by then – so the problem went away.)
    This was within a half mile of three old landmarks, too.  My town, as was much of Long Island, was founded by Quakers.  Fromm my back door it was a fifteen minute walk to a hill out in the middle of a field.  The hill was an odd-lookingf hill, topped by a bunch of locust trees, that had stood there for a hundred years.  Locust wood is basically iron, and some of these trees had been standing there dead for fifty years, too.  That hill was – still is – very distinctive, and it was known locally, by the older residents, as “Nigger Hill.”  It was a landmark on the Underground Railway.  When that unmistakable profile came into view on the horizon at night they knew they were close to safety.  The hill was the gathering place, and it was within a half mile of the Valentine Hicks house, and the Samuel Underhill house – both of which are still there, preserved by the town.  Old Quaker farmhouse homes, complete with hidden rooms, sliding panels, and hidey holes for escaped slaves, come north on the Railway.  The twentieth century county cops didn’t know this, of course – history wasn’t their specialty.
    In the early sixties there was great debate at the public school, about whether to integrate or not, and how best to go about it.  School board member Willets Underhill, descendant and board member listened to this about as long as he could stand, and then stood up to tell the rest of the board – most of whom had lived in town about twenty minutes as far as he was concerned – that they didn’t know a damn thing, were completely ignorant of the history of the schools in town, and didn’t need to worry about integrating the schools – the Jackson kids took care of that in 1886.  Quaker town, remember?  Underground Railroad, remember?  Best thing for all of you to do is sit down and shut up.  Bada bing.  (I knew Willets my whole life.  He was a little short on patience at the best of times, and as the town changed and the farms went away, his supply became so thin it was transparent.)  Major discussions about integrating the schools – cliche?  You bet.
    But it all happened, both in my town and in the south.  The movie is a movie, and has a story to tell, and two hours to do it – not five years.  Like most movies, it erects straw men for the heroes to knock down, and doesn’t spend a world of time on fleshing out the lesser characters – there isn’t time to be spent.  So they generalize.  Plenty of white people treated their black servitors along the lines of the Atticus Finch model – but plenty didn’t, too.  (Remember what a cliche really is: a truth.)  George Wallace, Bull Connor, Robert Shelton – were they something other than a cliche?  Could you sum up the entire complexity of their lives in one (pretty short) sentence?  Yeah, at least the public side of their lives, you could.  Maybe Bull Connor loved his grandchildren and his dogs.  It doesn’t change that he’s a cliche, his children and dogs aren’t what he’s known for.
    I don’t think the movie was great, nor was it entirely fair.  But it wasn’t trying to be, it was trying to tell a specific story from a specific point of view.  My own life being more complex I didn’t much like it, but it was based on stuff that happened.  So the characters are wooden, and one-dimensional.  That doesn’t matter a lot in this case, or in this story; the one dimension shown was the only dimension under discussion.  Of course that’s not entirely fair, and it’s not a great movie, either.  Bu tit didn’t cheat to make its point too badly – because that stuff did indeed happen.  Not everywhere, or to everyone – but it happened.  And that’s what the movie’s about.        

  • Spiff

    @JJ: Great comment. I didnt live through that period so I have little personal insight about it.

    All I have to add is that your points about cliches in movies is probably why it is best not to get your history from movies.

    As far as what Book is trying to say about this movie being a cliched and boring; I took it to mean more about how it has added little to the art of movie making, story telling and/or the historical discussion.  Its all been done before and probably better. No risks were made in telling the story or challenge the audiences; thus it is boring (not unlike anything Micheal Bay makes) :)

    In wierd sort of way it is very similiar to how Avatar did very little for the sci-fi genre other than make 3D more than just the next gimmick (for good or worse… personally I think worse).


  • USMaleSF

    I don’t watch any of these kinds of Black/White movies anymore and have not done so for several years. Regardless of their historical accuracy.
    For my reason, I’ll give an example: Trayvon Martin.

    Part of the PC regime requires that Whites be regularly reminded that we are The Eternally Guilty Oppressors of Blacks and that Blacks are The Eternally Morally Superior Victims of White Racism. It is a huge Lie in service of maintaining and enhancing the social, financial and political power of the Black Liberal Establishment and continuing to cow Whites so that we will not notice, much less talk publicly about, the enormous dysfunctionality of American Blacks, fifty years after the dismantling of the old regime.

    I have come to believe that the numerous and deeply destructive problems of Black America are now their own fault and their own doing. It is not my fault and I owe them nothing. But this can never be admitted. The guilt-and-victimism train must go on. Hollywood is entirely on board as a willing propaganda machine. I have opted out.

  • MacG

    The reason the cliches are abundant is because it is produced in a town that labels everything to fit into neat little categroies e.g. African American rather than simply American.  These types of depictions are their projection of their compartmentalized minds and the outcome aids in keeping the divisions rather then expanding thier minds beyond their worldview.  Once one experiences a dog bite it takes effort to live past that experience and not hold all dogs as biters but all the while knowing that they may be a potential biter and evaluate eacch dog on its own merits.

  • Spiff

    @MacG: I think you give them (Hollywood) way too much credit. I think it has less to do with their politics and worldview than it does with intellectual and artistic laziness. Hollywood is lazy. How else would you explain movies like Avatar, Transformers I, II, and III, Battleship, and so on? The best movie in years in my opinion was the remake of True Grit, and that is a remake of a great movie. If their movies were only informed by their politics I think we would still see great and creative movies that didnt need to reuse tired cliches and story arcs. The politics would be subtle while spinning a good yarn… there would be no need for the moral or political message to be beat us over our head.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Spiff is right about two things: jj’s points, as always, are excellent, but I was also talking about the incredible laziness that characterizes Hollywood movies.  Even two dimensional characters are too much work.  Hollywood falls back on a formalized Kabuki that says whites are bad.

    Hollywood was always lazy, I guess.  In the old movies, cowboys were good and Indians were bad, which was just as one dimensional and false an approach.  The old-movies, at least, have the charm that comes with a patina of age.

  • MacG

    “If their movies were only informed by their politics I think we would still see great and creative movies that didnt need to reuse tired cliches and story arcs”

    The cliches are the summation of thier politics and they work hard to keep it that way.  Which is why it is so hard for them to entertain facts over their feelings.  So it is as you and Book say or it is simply above them to work outside of their worlrdview.

    On the otherhand perhaps they know their audience and pander to it to make their wads of money while pretending to be part of the 99%.

  • jj

    Yes, Hollywood is lazy. As are television, literature, and comic books.  Because these things are audience-driven, and are actually businesses that need to make money, they will rarely fly in the face of public perception.  You don’t get audience, which means you don’t make money, by flying in the face of popular perception.  You have to be quite big and influential to do that successfully.  You have to be so big and so influential that you can sustain losses, sometimes for years, until your more balanced and nuanced depiction of people and situations can take hold and flower.  Thank John Wayne, John Ford, and Howard Hawks for the fairer and more accurate depictions of Indians that began to appear in the 1950s, continued throughout their singularly big and influential lives – and to this day.  They were big and influential enough to do it their way, but if they hadn’t been it never would have happened.  Cavalry good, Indians bad is a lot simpler, requires little explanation, uses a lot fewer pages of screenplay, and a lot fewer feet of film.
    That’s the flaw, or weakness, of the art form.  (Most art forms, in fact.)  Informing and educating is, in a perfect world, part of the deal – but, like everything else, it has to paid for.  If you make half a dozen hits, you can try to send a message, and maybe still be allowed to be in business after it bombs.  As long as you go back to making hits.  I’ve forgotten, but something in the back of my mind thinks it was Darryl Zanuck who said: “if you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  His point was simple: Hollywood’s not in the message business.  It’s in the entertainment business.
    People tend to forget that.  We view it as an important and influential medium, and think it should be doing important and influential things.  So do a lot of the pretentious jerks who are in the business – but that’s not what the old studio bosses ever thought.  It’s not what the corporations that own the studios today think, either.  They thought – and think – they were – and are – there to make money.  Popular perception in a story like this is obvious: blacks good, whites bad.  You don’t fly in the face of that.  You keep it simple.  To Kill A Mockingbird – simple.  Big star.  Be real daring, give him an Oscar and pat yourself on the back for being so bold.  The Learning Tree from 1969 – far more nuanced, far more thought-provoking, far more troubling.  It had coat-tails, and led to other projects that changed the world a bit – which Mockingbird did not.  It didn’t make squat, didn’t win anything, and nowadays you can watch it free on the internet – which you cannot do with Mockingbird.  You still have to go buy that sucker.  But Tree was more important, and Tree changed the world – and most folks never heard of it.  (But there is a direct line from it to films such as Sounder – of which people have heard.)
    Money.  We’re in business to make money.  Don’t forget it!