‘The Help’ missing a key ingredient

With Oscar just around the corner, I decided to see another Best Picture nominee I hadn’t gotten to: The Help. Besides, I’d heard about the chocolate pie that was central to the story, and I wanted an excuse to bake one.

I’ll get to that pie recipe (minus the secret ingredient) in a moment.

But first, I need to talk about why I found the movie a bit tough to swallow. Though the presentation was well-done, it left an aftertaste. Shame because after all the acclaim, I expected better.

Sadly missing from the story was a basic ingredient: Context.

In case you haven’t seen it, The Help is based on a book about Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a young white woman living in the 1960s who returns home to to Jackson, Mississippi, after college graduation. Jackson being the heart of the Deep South, where racial segregation has been going on for decades.

Unlike her socialite girlfriends, Skeeter’s more interested in making headlines than making babies. She hungers to be a serious writer. She’s looking for a way to bowl over big-city literary agent Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who’s seen some of her work and advises her to get more writing experience under her belt.

Though Skeeter grew up with black maids, it starts bugging her that the help is treated like dirt; and segregation is unfair.

DreamWorks

She tries to get the maids to open up and talk about a taboo subject: what it’s like to work for white folks. She’s hoping to glean enough blockbuster material to pitch to the literary honcho in New York.

I can relate to the part about yearning to become a journalist and unearthing some kind of big story that would yield some truths. I also grew up during this time. Though I lived in the Northeast, I’d read about segregation in the papers and it was a world that made me shudder.

Actor Wendell Pierce, star of The Wire and Treme, said he saw the film with his mom, who was once the help herself — and it didn’t sit well with her. He dismissed the film as  “segregation lite.”

That gets to the heart of what bothers me. The Help is so one-dimensional, it plays like watered-down Southern sweet tea.,

In fairness, there was an admirable attempt to transport the audience back to the 1960s with neat touches like shirtwaist dresses, hair gel and rollers (I remember them well) and the Wahtusi. (Apparently, it was filmed in the Jackson area and felt very authentic.)

IMO, it needed more historical perspective.

At one point, Skeeter, the maverick reporter, has a pamphlet outlining Mississippi’s draconian segregation laws in her purse. So we know they exist. And the camera is careful to show To Kill a Mockingbird and Native Son on her bookshelves.

But these visuals don’t provide enough of a back story on this horrific time in American history .

We’re shown the barest minimum.  Blacks were second-class citizens. They couldn’t vote or fraternize with whites. Were forced to have separate everything, from schools to bathrooms. It was the law.

Yes, those facts are awful enough. But to me, the film is too simplistic. It doesn’t forcefully convey the constant fear that those accused of breaking the law could end up behind bars for life or burned at the stake or strung up if vigilantes got to them first.

It also doesn’t attempt to explain that the whites truly believed they were superior because God had decreed it. That there was nothing wrong with this caste system because the races were separate but equal, when in fact they were not.

The film touches on civil rights protests and the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers by a white supremacist. But it doesn’t fully explain why these events are so important: because they helped pave the way for desegregation.

The actors are also stymied by bad writing and direction. They’re flailing around in a good-guys-versus-bad-guys tale with scant character development.

Skeeter’s a graduate of the University of Mississippi — in her back yard, relatively speaking. Was that enough of a hotbed at the time to make her rethink segregation?  If that was explained, I missed it.

Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the nastiest of the racist Southern belles, comes off like a one-note Wicked Witch of the Deep South. All she does is snarl. We have no clue what motivates her to be the meanest of the mean.

With the exception of Allison Janney, who plays Skeeter’s mom, and maids Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer , the other characters are cartoon cutouts who never change. Sissy Spacek is fun as the mom of the villainess. But Spacek’s character is also half-baked.

A movie like this only makes me appreciate others covering similar ground. One that immediately comes to mind is In the Heat of the Night, also based on a fictional book published in 1965. Also up for Best Picture, and won.

The understated Sidney Poitier plays a black police detective from Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, not Mississippi) who gets tangled up in a murder investigation in a small Mississippi town. His help isn’t appreciated by the whites, who detest working for a black cop.

This movie offers rich characters full of nuance. It becomes clear very quickly that the whites in this hellhole are as trapped as the blacks, and they all know it.

The capper: The black detective gains the upper hand because he’s smart. Not because he’s black.

I don’t mean to pile on. But The Help has been proclaimed an “important” film for our time. Given its shortcomings, not sure I’d go that far.

I agree it’s a good start for young audiences who  might not have known much about segregation. Let’s hope they’re interested enough to want to learn more on their own.

And … I think if The Help had been fleshed out a bit more, the chocolate pie scene would have been even more delicious …

Speaking of that pie, here’s a very edible recipe from the Mississippian who baked them for the film. I, who never make anything but takeout calls, decided to give it a try.

May look awful, but tasted great. And that’s all that matters.

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