HomeVideodrome: 'The Help' Strikes a Safe, Non-Preachy Balance on Race

This week on the HomeVideodrome podcast, Jim weighs in on the 3D in “Hugo,” Hunter reviews “Immortals” and we go on a few other tangents. The show is running late and will be up Wednesday, Dec. 7th over at The Film Thugs site.

“The Help” is a film that pulls off the impressive balancing act of depicting the explosive subject of race and class in the most crowd-pleasing manner possible. Naturally, this means that “The Help” is not a movie that will necessarily challenge you on its subject matter, but most movies that try to come off as crowd-pleasers while using race and class as themes often come off as condescending or sanctimonious. “The Help” manages to dodge these bullets, ultimately winning over the audience with its memorable characters.

The Help Blu ray

Taking place in Jackson, Miss. in the early sixties, the film is about a gal named Skeeter (Emma Stone, going all frizzy blonde) straight out of Ole Miss, who returns to her home in Jackson seeking a job as a writer. Relegated to a simple household cleaning column at the local paper, Skeeter seeks cleaning tips from a maid named Aibileen (Viola Davis), who works for one of her childhood friends. Her experiences with Aibileen causes her to consider the manner in which “the help” are treated in white Mississippi homes, and she looks to pen a book that will show the world from their perspective, in order to kick-start her career as a serious writer.

However, the intricate tentacles of Jackson’s supposedly polite society make this effort difficult, if not flat-out dangerous. The malevolent head of the wicked gossip-kraken is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a potent villainess who reaches Nurse Ratchet-levels of audience scorn.

The skeleton of the story in “The Help” seems like the obnoxious enlightened white person turning a backward society around in a manner they could never have done without them; however, Stone’s Skeeter is hardly the enlightened Jesus-like Jake Sully from “Avatar,” the Caucasian warrior who must save an oppressed ethnicity from whitey’s claws. Such characters exist only in the minds of garden-variety white liberal writers.

Skeeter’s initial objective isn’t to selflessly liberate the oppressed or show her friends and family how horrible they truly are. Her character has a bottom line she sets out to achieve; her method of doing so is a difficult but ultimately positive one that she quickly comes to believe in. In the end, though, the seed of awareness is planted, things are better for Skeeter, but the situation for “the help” is otherwise the same. The insensitivity of the liberal elite is shown through the New York publisher Skeeter is trying to sell her idea to, insisting that she needs to get the book done soon, before, as she puts it, the whole Civil Rights thing blows over.

The rest of the white characters surrounding Skeeter are mostly southern rich-bitch stereotypes, especially during the film’s first act, though a few do gain a bit of nuance by the end, particularly Skeeter’s mother (Allison Janney), who is the source of conflict at home.

The stand-out performances are given by Davis and Octavia Spencer. Spencer’s character is what Donald Bogle refers to as the stereotype of “the mammy,” the large, de-sexualized black woman who doesn’t take shit from anyone. However, she delivers the film’s most memorable (and hilarious) moments with superb skill. Her role is a highlight, alongside Howard’s truly vile gossip queen. Davis’s Aibileen also serves as the film’s narrator, and her quiet performance is ultimately the movie’s standout.

“The Help” isn’t as daring or as interesting an exploration of race in the south during the Civil Rights era as it thinks it is, but my hat is off to it for being a truly entertaining and enjoyable film that hits those topics. The movie gets truly cheap during its final act in how it shamelessly fishes for tears from the audience in a manner that reaches Paul Haggis levels of overt manipulation, but in the end I was moved and entertained, along with everyone else in the theater. As lame as this sounds, it really is the most successful “crowd-pleaser” I’ve seen all year. That’s not to say it’s “the best” of what I’ve seen in 2011 – far from it. However, I can’t imagine people coming out of this one with their arms crossed, granted they’ve checked their cynicism at the door.

Available on Amazon Instant, Blu-ray/DVD/Digital, Blu-ray/DVD combo and DVD

Other Noteworthy Releases

Cowboys & Aliens: Like so many of this summer’s blockbusters, this one was bland and unsatisfying in spite of the great talent in front of and behind the camera. Head on over to my blog for my full thoughts.

Available on Amazon Instant, Blu-ray, DVD, and a DVD gift set

The Hangover Part II: This sequel to Todd Phillips’s sleeper hit was more of the same in a different setting, though it does have its moments. Head on over to Parcbench for my full review.

Available on Amazon Instant, Blu-ray/DVD Combo, Blu-ray, and DVD

Mr. Popper’s Penguins: This’ll make a good stocking stuffer for the little ones, or so I’m told.

Available on Amazon Instant, Blu-ray and DVD

The Debt: I don’t know much about this one, apart from the fact that it stars Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, and the incredibly talented Jessica Chastain (who also appears in “The Help” this week). The premise involves Mossad agents, which makes me wary, as I still suffer from flashbacks to the soapboxy final act of “Munich”.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Dragon Tattoo Trilogy – Extended Edition: In anticipation of David Fincher’s remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, the acclaimed trilogy gets a dip in a box set.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Tora! Tora! Tora!: The anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is this week, but why bother with the Michael Bay interpretation when you have this film? Akira Kurosawa was originally going to go Hollywood and direct the Japanese segments of this film, but his clashes with the studio caused him to drop out. He was replaced by Kinji Fukasaku (alongside Toshio Matsuda), who is known for directing films like “Battle Royale,” “Battles Without Honor & Humanity,” and the schlock classic “The Green Slime.” Richard Fleischer, the guy who gave us “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” directed the American scenes.

Available on Blu-ray

Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Vol. XXII: This box set includes the episodes that cover “Mighty Jack,”Time of the Apes,” “The Violent Years,” and “The Brute Man.” Speaking of “The Green Slime,” Fukasaku’s B-movie was the very first movie the MST3K crew riffed on in their pilot episode that never aired.

Available on DVD

The Lady Vanishes: Criterion is updating their edition of this Hitchcock classic to Blu-ray. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford would reprise their roles as Charters and Caldicott in Carol Reed’s “Night Train to Munich,” also available from Criterion.

Available on Blu-ray

Design for Living: This Ernest Lubitsch comedy starring Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins gets the Criterion treatment. These old Hollywood comedies have a level of craft and sexiness you don’t see in today’s slacker-dominated comedies.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Also, for those of you who like projectile vomiting while working out, this one’s for you. It may accelerate your weight-loss, albeit in an unhealthy manner.

This post originally appeared over at Parcbench.

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