Even Emma Stone Can't Save 'The Help' From Heat For 'Fake' History

The flaws of the "feel-good" Civil Rights-era genre

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Participant Media’s The Help opened this weekend to a number two spot in the box office, exceeding expectations with a five-day debut of $35.4 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The film, the story of white women and their maids in Jim Crow South, featured by all accounts excellent performances by actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, and new it-girl Emma Stone (who, some have argued, can do no wrong). But despite the fact that the movie is clearly a financial (and arguably a critical) success, many responses to it remain aggravated by its glossing over of civil rights history in exchange for feel-good histrionics -- an enduring problem for Hollywood films.

For one, at issue is the lack of actual threat shown for women of color in the movie, effectively placing them "in a fake 60s Mississippi," according to Thompson on Hollywood. USA Today reports the reaction of Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry to the film on MSNBC, where she said: "The problem is that it is so ahistorical as to be inaccurate...The issues that faced African-American women were not Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi, Mean Girls behavior - it was rape, it was lynching."

Moreover, New York Times critic Nelson George writes that the film's strategy to buffer "viewers from the era’s violence" was not so present in the book, where the narrative was driven by all three main characters: Skeeter, an emerging white liberal writer, and Minny and Aibileen, two black maids she persuades to tell their stories. But in the movie, "the narrative is driven by Skeeter’s [Emma Stone's] journey from oddball college graduate to rebellious neo-liberal muckraker, action that happens in the book but is given more prominence in the stripped-down screenplay structure." About other films in its genre, he adds:

That’s not to say there haven’t been successful attempts to translate the tumultuous era — roughly 1954 to the early ’70s — into coherent narratives. It is just that almost none of them have been fictional.

To other critics, The Help's faults are even more egregious than just inaccurate history. Joe Morgenstern reviews at The Wall Street Journal that the film actually "strengthens stereotypes it purports to shatter." But if anything, he sees its Hollywood veneer as in part ensuring the movie's success, noting that audiences will "embrace" the movie, citing "the white guilt it addresses, and deftly mitigates," as factors.

This amounts, in the view of Slate critic Dana Stevens, to make this "feel-good" movie feel "kind of icky." She notes that Stone's character tells a housemaid, "This isn't about me," but it's "never clear whether we, the audience, should believe Skeeter's disclaimer or not, since the movie sort of is about her." She continues to describe the tired stereotypes given center-stage in the film:

[F]or the most part, whites in this movie are either pure-of-heart crusaders or sneering bigots. Similarly, some of the black characters... border on saintly stereotypes from a sentimental abolitionist-era novel. This... lets the viewer off the hook by making racism seem like a quaint artifact of the days when there were openly racist Hillys bullying self-evidently blameless Constantines.

If The Help contained more moments in which Skeeter's good will wasn't enough—in which, despite her best intentions, she blundered by unintentionally patronizing one of her interview subjects and had to confront her own received ideas about race—contemporary viewers might recognize a moment we've actually lived through, rather than being encouraged to congratulate ourselves on how far we've come.

But there's a trade-off involved in The Help that Stevens acknowledges: "The Help raises the eternal question faced by minority groups who have to fight for space onscreen (that is to say, anyone but white men): Do we count ourselves glad to make any inroads we can, or do we demand rich, nuanced, subtle representations right from the start?"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.