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Not that I think it would put a stop to a lot of the more “creative” discussion that often comes up regarding what winds up as the main review subject each week on Escape to the Movies, but I think some may be interested to know that The Escapist has given me a very generous amount of “moving around” room when it comes to setting up what does and doesn’t get reviewed. Short version: 90% of the time, the movie on the block for that week’s show is there because it’s the one I decided to go with. The other 10% of the time being instances where there was more than one viable option and I sought the additional input of my producer.

The point is, there’s really no “mandate” that says Escape to the Movies most often concerns itself with sci-fi, fantasy, horror and other “genre” movies – it just tends to work out that way and it’s usually my call. And while I generally try, as the on-staff “movie guy” for a website primarily dedicated to videogames, to not be swayed by the demonstrably untrue stereotype that gamers don’t care about material outside of the “genre” realm, one does try to get a feel for one’s audience and act accordingly. I’m here to entertain and inform, which begins with trying to discern what prospective viewers are interested in, not necessarily “telling” them what they should be interested in, instead.

This column, on the other hand, is (ideally) supposed to function as a kind of “expanded footnote” to the show – and since I opened this week’s show with a joke at the expense of The Help, I figure that’s about as big a fig leaf of justification I need to talk about a movie that’s becoming a big deal and that, while not necessarily an automatic topic for Escape to the Movies, inspires a certain amount of discussion that I imagine The Escapist‘s readership may appreciate taking part in.

So, anyway.

The Help is a period drama based on a popular novel that compresses a volatile issue of the recent past into a personal character/relationship piece told almost exclusively from the point of view of female characters (which, unless we’re talking about Bridesmaids or Sex & The City is Hollywood shorthand for “This Is Serious Business.”). It’s what we in the business call “Awards Bait,” right down to its top-to-bottom cast of potential Oscar nominees of both the “future” and “overdue” vintage. Its mission: to tell the story of racial segregation and the birth of the Civil Rights Movement – one of the most difficult and often grim periods in modern American history – in a manner that flatters, gently reassures and steadfastly avoids challenging an audience for whom it is now largely the stuff of legends. Or, to put it more succinctly, it aims to contextualize historical events that were primarily about the suffering and indignation of black people in a manner that white people can absorb without experiencing any vague sense of historical guilt.

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To wit, while the film is set in Segregation-era Mississippi just in time for Medgar Evers to die offscreen and largely concerns the plight of black housemaids still living under a kind of unofficial slavery cleaning the homes and raising the babies of casually cruel upper middle class white housewives, its main character is a young white woman named “Skeeter” (Emma Stone).

Skeeter has just graduated from college, and unlike what we’re given to understand of pretty much every other woman in her social circle she was actually there to learn, not just to land a husband. Yes, Skeeter is an educated, liberated woman who suddenly finds herself out of place in a community of garden partying marriage seekers, and she’s also now more keenly aware (she went to college, after all!) of her friends and family’s abysmal treatment of their black service people. This is the movie being as upfront as it can about exactly how it intends to flatter the egos of a significant percentage of its audience: “See, ladies? You’re definitely not racist! Only uneducated, un-liberated gals representing broad caricatures of dated gender archetypes you vowed to never resemble can be racist!”

In any case, Skeeter has been trying to land a writing job with a big New York publisher (“Author Insert Character,” much?) and her big inspiration is to pitch a book of anonymous “ugly truth” anecdotes from black maids concerning their real feelings about their white employers. Her drive to do so is inspired not so much by the actual churnings of the early Civil Rights movement but by her indignation at her ex-friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas-Howard) spearheading a “health law” requiring white homes to install separate bathrooms for “the (black) help.” Hilly, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, is a grown-up “Mean Girl” obsessed with domestic status symbols and embodying the “traditional housewife” ideal – a walking affront to Skeeter’s woman-of-the-future outlook.

The central non-antagonistic relationship of the film is between Skeeter and Aibilene (Viola Davis) the first black maid willing to come forward and share her stories for the proposed book. The hype is true – Davis is damn good in this, but it’s sort of depressing that she’s always been a great actress and is only getting serious recognition now for playing (again, playing well) yet another in a long line of largely one-dimensional, impossibly noble black characters whose sole function is to inspire a white hero through their stoic suffering. Yes, she’s good, but it’s not her story, even though it kind of ought to be.

Thusly, The Help eventually settles in as something akin to a (superficially) “progressive” answer to the “conservative” blockbuster The Blind Side, which offered the pleasant fantasy (no, “based on a true story” does not exempt the film from being a fantasy) that upscale suburban Christian righteousness can turn Sandra Bullock into the Magical White Savior. Granted, Help doesn’t contain anything quite as nauseatingly pandering as Bullock freezing a pair of black “gangsta” stereotypes in their track with the mere mention of her NRA membership (no, really – that’s an actual scene in The Blind Side), but it’s working the same basic angle with dime store Women’s Studies 101 feminism subbing-in for religiosity. Same tune, different lyrics.

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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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