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  • Saturday, October 8, 2011
  • 8:00 PM–9:00 PM
  • Covenant Fine Arts Center
  • $1

Co-sponsored with Unlearn Week

No film this year has done more to spark discussions about race than The Help. Set in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, the film is centered around African-American women who raise white children and tend to the home, known as “the help.” A breakout success at the box office, some see the film as a feel-good story of empowerment while others think it does more harm than good in adding to our modern discussions on race. I came away from the film with decidedly mixed feelings.

At the emotional core of The Help is the portrayal of housemaids Aibileen and Minny by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Both actresses bring a depth to their roles that seems to be missing from some of the other main characters. Aibileen and Minny are not just saintly characters that endure and transcend their place in life, but each experience conflicting emotions and everyday struggles. Aibileen both loves the white children she is tasked with raising and resents the treatment she and other help receive from the privileged white class. In the same way, Minny passively accepts mistreatment in order to save her job, but occasionally lashes out in anger when it becomes too much. Both characters are endlessly endearing, but they’re not perfect. If anything, The Help should be seen for these dramatic performances.  For example, when Aibileen breaks down about the death of her son, it’s as if Viola Davis has experienced the loss herself. In my viewing experience, the theater (comprised mainly of senior citizens) quickly filled with sniffles and cleared throats as Davis delivered the heartfelt monologue.

Unfortunately, some characters lack the complexity of Aibileen and Minny. The most recognizable actress in The Help, Emma Stone, plays Skeeter, a recently graduated writer who returns to her conservative Mississippi hometown to find a job. While I don’t buy the criticism that she takes the credit for the stories told by the African-American help, her character is a bit shallow. Skeeter is the token “enlightened liberal” who serves to point out the all-too obvious ironies of life around her like the fact that they raise money for African children but view African-Americans around them as second-class citizens, or that white mothers have the help raise their children but won’t let them use their bathrooms. Skeeter is also used to tack-on a feminist storyline that doesn’t really connect. Her forays into the sexist worlds of journalism and Southern courtship are not fully fleshed-out and end up distracting from the help’s struggle for racial equality.

The film’s antagonist, Hilly Holbrook (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), is the most grotesque character in The Help. She talks down to anyone not in her social circle and is the author of legislation aimed at preventing African-Americans from using the bathrooms in white homes (supposedly their touch will spread disease). Even after some of her peers have softened their hearts, Hilly remains stuck in her racist beliefs. The problem with Hilly is that she’s simply too terrible to relate to. In the end, she’s the only racist left standing, communicating to the audience that racism is not something that lingers in the average Joe, but is possessed by a small percentage of extreme individuals.

If Unlearn week seeks to teach us one thing, it’s that racism pervades our society in subtle ways and doesn’t just lie within the hearts of “evil” people. It’s disappointing that the film not only ends with the African-American maids speaking out, but also shows all the white characters (with the exception of Hilly) cleansing themselves of their previously held racist beliefs.  This ending emphasizes the fact that the film is set in the past, indirectly saying that mainstream America has since moved on. A film that honestly deals with racism should cause viewers to look inward, not just pat themselves on the back. If viewed as a story about a group of African-American women persevering in the face of racial prejudice, The Help really works. Most everything else just gets in the way.

- Dan Hofman

October 2011
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