I saw ‘The Help’ at a daytime screening two weeks ago, and I’ve never been more grateful to be in possession of a pair of sunglasses than I was when I left the dark theater and emerged into the light. Yes, reader, I cried, and I defy any sentient being among you to get through this film about women and race in the Jim Crow South without doing the same. Not that it’s an overwhelming bummer of a film: the insanely talented might-as-well-be-all-female cast — Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, etc. — deliver plenty of laughs, and more than a few infuriating shocks to the conscience. I went along for the ride — all 2 1/2 hours of it.
Still, I had reservations. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I heard two black women who had just seen the film complaining about one black actress’s “step ‘n’ fetch it” performance. When I returned to the AOL Huffington Post offices, I dropped in on the women’s editor, Lori Leibovich, who raised a skeptical eyebrow when I informed her that, in my opinion, ‘The Help’ is a damn good movie. “Really good?” she asked, in a tone of voice that immediately had me wondering how it might stack up to, say, ‘All About Eve.’ Rebecca Carroll, then in the midst of a mad rush to launch the new HuffPost BlackVoices, was, if anything, even more dubious. She’d kept up with the controversy surrounding Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular book, and was generally having a hard time stomaching the notion — central to the film — that a white woman, real or fictional, could accurately capture the experiences of black domestic workers in pre–Civil Rights Jackson, Miss.
Which is how this video came about.
Here at the Huffington Post Media Group, our mission is to start conversations. And so we convened a small panel to discuss a few of the hot-button issues at work in ‘The Help.’ In addition to myself and the aforementioned Rebecca Carroll, we have two reporters from the recently launched HuffPost Culture: Paul Needham and Amy Lee.
Oddly, Paul and I liked the movie a good deal more than Rebecca and Amy did. In fact, I have yet to meet a single man who has seen the movie and didn’t like it, or a single woman who didn’t find fault with it, ranging from Rebeccca’s acutely reasoned critique to the gut reaction of another colleague, who simply said, “It’s never as good as the book, is it?” I suppose it’s possible that the women feel entitled to pick apart a film aimed so squarely at them, whereas the men are just amazed that they didn’t hate it. But I also wonder whether the director, Tate Taylor, infected the whole enterprise with some Y-chromosome stain that’s invisible to the likes of Paul and me.
Related video: Paul Needham interviews Octavia Spencer of ‘The Help.’
In any case, we’d like to hear what you think in the comments section, though we ask you to please keep it civil, as these are highly sensitive matters indeed. Tell us: Is it valuable for a movie like ‘The Help’ to dig up painful issues of racial injustice, even if the results sometimes veer unsettlingly close to stereotype? Or should filmmakers who have little hope of ever truly understanding their subjects err on the side of caution?
And, in case that’s all a bit heady, feel free to discuss the question of whether Viola Davis will win the Oscar for best supporting actress or just be nominated!