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By now, critics like myself are aware that we sound like broken records on this subject. Yes, Hollywood continues to make black characters the sidekicks of their own stories, operating under the apparent assumption that (majority white) audiences will not go to see a story told specifically from a black point of view. Or, to put it in cold hard Hollywood financial terms: There's not enough money in "black films." There may, or may not, be some mutually depressing truths to those statements, but in an age where Tyler Perry (whatever you may think of his work otherwise) can make hit after hit with predominantly black features and the most reliable box office star in the Western World has been Will Smith for over a decade now, you have to start wondering whether this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; i.e. Hollywood basing its decision on the theoretical box office performance of films it isn't making in the first place.

But the problem with The Help isn't simply a matter of character hierarchy. That Skeeter is the lead role is vastly less objectionable than the fact that the film makes the rather huge issue of Mississippi's black servant class being treated as subhuman an incidental aspect to the "real" story of Skeeter's self-actualization. The film is not, despite what its bookend scenes wish to imply, about Aibilene and the other maids' act of defiance. It's about Skeeter proving to her marriage/traditional family-fixated mother and her tediously old-fashioned friends that her career oriented, independent lifestyle is worthwhile; that the way she goes about it helps nudge a community further toward standing up for itself is merely a side effect.

What's kind of interesting is that the film stretches out its running time with another non-traditional-white-woman/black-maid friendship that has a much more interesting dynamic. Octavia Spencer plays a sharp-tongued, cash-strapped maid who becomes the secret mentor to a vivacious "backwoods" blonde knockout (Jessica Chastain) who's trying to prevent her newly landed uber-rich husband from discovering that she is comically incapable of taking care of the old money mansion he's inherited. The subtle differences in the dynamic - chiefly that the "improperly" gorgeous outsider's issues of self-confidence and rejection by (and of) the mainstream lady clique being wholly personal (rather than carrying the baggage of a political statement) and the maid being a fully fledged character (rather than a vehicle for projections of martyrdom) - make all the difference in the world; to the point that I began to wonder why this much more interesting pair weren't the whole movie.

The Help isn't precisely a bad movie. At the very least, it will likely net Oscar nominations for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer - both of which are largely well-deserved. But overall it's a fairly mediocre movie made all the more so by how casually it perpetuates the odious Hollywood tradition of White Saviors teaching helpless minorities to stand up for themselves. I'm the first person to defend the use of formula and recurrent themes in moviemaking, but at long last isn't it time this particular angle was put back to bed?

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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