Oscar Week: In Defense Of The HelpS

Tim Grierson and Will Leitch will be writing regularly on Gawker and Deadspin about movies, starting today. We begin with defending the indefensible: praising the Oscar-nominated movie everyone seems to hate. Today, why you're wrong for hating The Help. Follow Grierson & Leitch on Twitter for more business.

The reason I think The Help is so divisive—and it's a film some friends of mine believe is actually worse about race relations than Crash, an outrageous accusation; my eyes had more fun being maced than watching Crash—is that is probably would have never occurred to the makers of The Help that it could possibly be divisive. This is a movie that desperately wants to please, to develop some sort of consensus, to appeal to some idealistic, impossible notion of humanity's inherent goodness. Those are always the types of movies people hate. It's so, so easy to mock a movie that doesn't understand why anyone would mock it. We used to call this bullying.

The Help is painfully earnest, to be sure, made by a director (Tate Taylor, a struggling actor who happened to grab the rights to the book before it became a bestseller simply because he was friends with the author) who lacks basic directorial chops but clearly cares so much about his story that he can't help but hit all the right emotional beats; he directs like a guy who has never seen another movie before and just wanted to tell this story, badly. Taylor grew up in Jackson and lives in Mississippi, and I bet he never makes a good movie again. He might have been put here just to make this movie.

The Help has drawn considerable criticism—most of its criticism, really—for its supposed rhetorical whitewashing of the civil rights era, for taking a tumultuous, hideous time in our nation's history and giving it a happy ending and transforming it into sassy entertainment. And for sure, the movie's light tone doesn't have enough of a backbone to handle an almost flippant "oh, yeah, Medgar Evers was murdered just across town" plot point. (The universe of this film is so self-contained and lovingly rendered that clumsily bringing in the real-world struggles feels like faux-historical hindsight.) But if you have a problem with a movie that gives you barrels full of sugar to help tell a story that's inherently depressing and ugly, well, you know, that's sort of how movies are made. You take out the sugar, and not only does no one see the film, it probably doesn't even exist. That the film isn't able to dramatize or resolve every angle of the cruelty of the time is less an indictment of the film itself as it is an indictment of the fact that so few films have ever even tried.

And besides, for all your smirking about Emma Stone's ringlets, you'd have a hard time gathering evidence from Viola Davis's performance that anything in The Help is somehow weak-kneed or overly forgiving for the sake of white audiences. Davis's Aibileen is the unquestioned center of the film, and it's a relief when, halfway through, the film finally admits that nobody cares about Skeeter's writing career and hands itself over to Davis. While you're wringing your hands about "the lack of quality roles for African-Americans in this business," Davis is busy digging deep into this character, making her pain—the pain of losing her son, the pain of having "raised 18 babies," white babies, who then turn right around straight into their parents—palpable and blinding. The movie is about her, and tens of thousands of women like her. Sure, there are white characters in The Help, but the movie never falls into the Rob Reiner message movie trap memorably chronicled by Variety's Godfrey Cheshire, who noted that "when future generations turn to this era's movies for an account of the struggles for racial justice in America, they'll learn the surprising lesson that such battles were fought and won by square-jawed white guys." The victory of the film is Davis's, not Stone's. If casting Stone and giving her a dull, pointless story about finding love gets more people into the theater to see Davis's story—and, to a smaller but not lesser extent, Octavia Spencer's and Cicely Tyson's —well, what's the problem with that? It might seem like an overly commercial, crowd-pleasing story to you, but it never is for them. And this is the movie that tells their story. Show me another film that even considered trying.

And the sugar is effective too. Stone has more success playing a silly character than poor Bryce Dallas Howard does in the requisite Most Racist Of Them All role—and note that the thinnest-drawn characters are all white—but Jessica Chastain brings legitimate daffiness and heart to a part that looks cartoonish but sneaks up on you. And all told, the "terrible awful" that Spencer's character pulls off has a cathartic kick. This is a film that paints in big, broad strokes and wants to move you, to make you laugh and make you cry in the most basic, old-fashioned tradition of the message movie. But it transcends that by caring about the people involved, by feeling obligated, in a fundamental sense, just to tell their story. Sure, you can stand aside from it and mock its earnestness, congratulate yourself for being "above" its tricks. You have that right. Just note that everyone around you in the theater is bawling.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.