The Help has recently swept the various award shows, winning three SAG awards (including best actress for Viola Davis, best supporting actress for Octavia Spencer and best ensemble) and receiving four Oscar nominations (including best actress for Viola Davis, best supporting actress for Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain and Best Picture).
The film is set in Jackson, Miss. on the brink of the civil rights movement. It follows the unlikely rebellion of black maids who serve white families and one well-to-do white woman who wants to tell their stories. Laughter-laden, The Help turns what should be a feel-bad tear jerker into a heart-warming tear jerker.
So what does the film say about the South?
While The Help is brilliantly acted and beautifully directed, it is largely glosses over the swathe of events happening in the South, such as the civil rights movement to name one. The maids’ source of protest is their stories, yet there is no evidence of the violent and volatile white-supremacist South we know to be true. There was certainly oppression in the film, but it seemed to be a flaccid form of the terrors of Jim Crow. There is a certain sense of passivity in Director Tate Taylor’s re-imagined Mississippi.
Furthermore, the maids are painfully stereotypical. For example, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) laments a memorable line to the white children she cares for, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” The accent is wildly stereotypical; it sounds as if the characters of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind were resurrected from their antebellum time period. And motor-mouthed maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), is a clear revival of the mammy figure, fried chicken and all.
The South also appears trite and trivialized, the depth is missing. Taylor lightens the segregated South with laughter, such as Minny Jackson’s famous “chocolate” pie for her bigot nemesis, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), eventually resulting in her yard being filled with toilets (you can guess what her secret ingredient was.) These moments come across as cheap laughs amidst the grand scale of the civil rights movement.
The Help presents a South where gentile ladies rule the land. Behind the masks of floral frocks, strained smiles and big hair is wickedness. Many of the tiffs between the matriarchs and their maids make viewers feel slightly uncomfortable, but discomfort is dissolved with laughter, love and perseverance. It had to be expected; The Help is a Disney movie after all.
The ending is perhaps the biggest problem. There is no foreshadowing of the events to come. The film gives viewers closure, and the real struggle for equality was far from over. The fight had just begun. The fact of the matter is that writer and director Tate Taylor, a Mississippi native, had to sell the South to Hollywood, racism and all. Selling something to Hollywood means giving them what they want, and only what they want. If what they want is a skewed view of Southern segregation, it’ll be handed to them on a silver platter. After all, Mississippi is the “Hospitality State.” Taylor merely aimed to please.
But while there are major problems with the film itself, most will agree that the acting is absolutely superb. And naturally the acting ensemble is chock full of Southerners. Oscar contenders, Viola Davis (Aibileen Clark) and Octavia Spencer (Minny Jackson) are both Southerners, from South Carolina and Alabama respectively. One could certainly argue that Davis’ and Spencer’s powerful performances speak even louder than their given dialects. Though they both play a stereotype, they play it well. If nothing else, The Help attests to the repertoire of Southern talent, leaving more to be desired.
Hollywood beware, the South is rising.