Is The Help a heartwarming tale of racial reconciliation or condescending, stereotypical tripe? Let's ask people who have seen the movie, which opens today, or plan to!
Even those who liked the book are approaching with trepidation. "My concern is not with The Help. My concern is how American society processes race and how people will receive the movie," writes Tami at What Tami Said, adding, "To me, The Help was less about race than it was about gender—about women of different races, ages and classes chafing against the ways society marginalizes them and restricts them and tries to own them. But that narrative, perhaps, does not lend itself to big box office receipts and product tie ins."
The most resonant criticism of the film, to my reading, is that no matter how many times the movie tells us racism is bad (apparently many), it is still about foregrounding a white character who "changes the lives of a couple of dozen black women whose change is refracted primarily through her," as The Boston Globe 's Wesley Morris puts it. He says that "Skeeter enjoys all the self-discovery and all the credit." He doesn't dismiss the movie outright, and makes it sound like it's about to be well-received by the same viewers that made The Blind Side a hit. But most devastating of all, Morris closes, "On one hand, it's juicy, heartwarming, well-meant entertainment. On the other, it's an owner's manual."
In New York, David Edelstein argues that narratively speaking, that's an asset, at least in the novel, because she's the most in conflict: "From a dramatic standpoint, the most compelling vantage might well be that of the young white woman, "Skeeter" Phelan, presumably Stockett's alter ego. She's wracked with guilt over having essentially been raised by a black woman too poor to stay home with her own children. If The Help exploits black experience, it does so partly out of a need for penance." But presumably the black women in the book feel a similarly complex set of feelings towards their charges.
Another criticism of the film is that it glosses over the real violence of the time, except for showing Medgar Evers's death in passing, in favor of domesticity. You could argue that the mundane experience of racism in daily life deserves its own telling alongside the attack dogs and bombings, but the effect, says Edelstein, is that in The Help it's only the women - the belles of the balls - who misuse their power and make life for their maids an endless series of insults."
It also means that domestic common ground, easier to find than the macro kind, lends a pleasingly blurry effect. In that vein, Manohla Dargis raved about Viola Davis's performance, was indifferent to the director and most of the supporting actors with faint praise, and finished with this subtly damning critique:
What does remain [in the adaptation], though, is the novel's conceit that the white characters, with their troubled relationships and unloved children, carry burdens equal to those of the black characters. Like the novel, the movie is about ironing out differences and letting go of the past and anger. It's also about a vision of a divided America that while consistently insulting and sometimes even terrifying, is rarely grotesque, despite Hilly's best (worst) segregationist efforts.... And while every so often the roar of the outside world steals in like thunder, Mr. Taylor makes sure it doesn't rattle the china or your soul.
On the plus side, looks like Viola Davis has a good chance of getting an Oscar this year.