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.