Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Notes from a Native Son: Why 'The Help' Is Not This Year's 'The Blind Side'

Film directors who make historical dramas featuring black characters do so at their own risk. Get the details wrong or whitewash facts -- and let's face it, most of them do -- and the criticism pours in. That's entertainment.

As a black man, I must come clean: I quite enjoyed The Help. That's not to say I didn't have some issues with it. It's been criticized by blacks for the way its black characters speak, and while these characterizations may be somewhat simplified, they're not entirely inaccurate. People who speak ungrammatically -- onscreen and off -- frustrate me, but that's what some people do. Then and now. A couple of years ago, I was watching the daytime soap One Life to Live on my laptop, and a black friend who was in the room asked me if the characters who were talking were black.

"Yes, why do you ask?"

"Because they sound black."

Yes, stereotypes abound on television and in movies, but remember: Stereotypes are based on reality. I see stereotypical behavior ever time I walk out the front door: from the fawning Thai employees in the hotel where I live to the gay men cruising the three levels of DJ Station looking for an ego boost or an easy f**k.

I think The Help would have benefited greatly if Aibileen spoke like Viola Davis does in real life because, you know, then and now, not every black person sounded black. Neither Sidney Poitier nor Beah Richards did in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and as the help in that 1967 film, Isabel Sanford may have struggled with double negatives, but her vocal inflections really weren't that far removed from Louise "Weezy" Jefferson, the upscale character she'd spend much of the next two decades playing on TV.

But getting back to Aibileen, a viable love interest for her wouldn't have hurt either, because let's face it, adorable as Chris Lowell is, as a love interest for Emma Stone's Skeeter, both his character and the relationship were unnecessary duds. But that's not to say that some of the other black women in the movie didn't have loving husbands at home.

There are also detractors, black and white, who think that like To Kill a Mockingbird, Mississippi Burning and The Blind Side, The Help suffers from white-hero syndrome. White man -- or in The Blind Side's case, white heroine -- swoops in and saves the day. I'm pretty sure that Steven Spielberg will face similar criticism when Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln frees the slaves in the upcoming biopic of the 16th U.S. President, though, as far as I know, that actually happened. In the case of The Help, I couldn't disagree more. (And going slightly off-topic, The Blind Side wouldn't have gotten the time of day had it not been for Sandra Bullock's charm. I kept wanting her to show up in Moneyball to make me care about baseball and Brad Pitt.)

Skeeter's story frames The Help, but the stories she tells -- even when it's her own -- focus on black women, the titular "help." Aibileen is the one who provides the voice over, and she and Octavia Spencer (who plays Minny with the type of scene-stealing sass that guarantees Oscar buzz, while being so much more than comic relief) are the ones who will likely get Academy Award nominations (as was not the case with any of the aforementioned knight-in-shining-white-armor films, whose nominees were all white).

Skeeter is the vessel, but she doesn't save anyone. These women save themselves. By telling their stories, they risk their lives. But they know what has to be done to open eyes to the inequality that plagued the south in the '60s, and they do it with great courage and candor.

Is the movie perfect? By no means! As I suggested in my previous post, Emma Stone seems like she time travelled from 2011 to play an aspiring journalist, and some of the characters -- especially Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly -- are too comically drawn to be threatening. Racism is presented more as an annoyance than a deadly sin. The movie never quite captures how tough it was to be black in the 1960s south. But then, had it gotten too difficult, it probably wouldn't have made a trillion dollars at the box office.

It also needed more of a black male presence. The preacher isn't enough. Aibileen's son is dead, and Leroy, Minny's violent husband, is never shown. Although the death of Medgar Evers is mentioned almost in passing -- and gives Davis a great running scene -- it seems thrown in to give the film historical context. It's like one of those news bulletins that interrupt your favorite daytime soap. Now back to the regularly scheduled programming.

But who needs men when the help (note the lowercase: I'm talking about the women, not the movie) are so powerful? Yes, they respect their bosses, but isn't that what people -- black and white -- do, even today, if they want to keep their jobs? Aibileen has a nice home, and with her hourly wage of 90-something cents, she doesn't appear to be struggling financially. Though Minny is abused by her husband -- beatings that, thankfully and tastefully, occur off screen -- she is still one of the strongest figures in the movie. She makes Hilly eat shit, literally, and she eventually gathers the courage to leave her husband.

Despite her decent digs, Aibileen suffers, and she does so nobly, as Oscar nomination-bound lead actresses must do. But she gets her happy ending. She ultimately stands up to Hilly and she views her firing as a blessing: She has raised her last white baby.

The ending reminds me of the final line in Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, a fantastic book which I don't think I've ever seen criticized for having period black characters talk ungrammatically (perhaps because, unlike the book on which The Help is based, it was written by a black woman): "She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see."

As Aibileen walks down the street to meet her destiny and the camera backs away from her, it's clear that for Aibileen and for Viola Davis, greater things lie ahead. It's Aibileen's story, Davis's movie.
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